Don’t count out Iona, just ask Momo Jones

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports

By Paul Gotham

Forget about the 20-13 record. The February slump? It’s a thing of the past.

If what “Momo” Jones says is true, the Iona Gaels might have trick or two left before the end of their season.

“We’re starting to come alive now,” Jones said recently by phone when asked if his team’s best basketball is ahead of them. “We’re starting to gel more and more. We still have a lot of work to do which is so scary. Not everybody has a high ceiling to reach and can still peak at this point in the year. We have that in us.”

The Gaels are heading back to the NCAA Tournament. But that didn’t always look possible.

One year after earning a rare at-large bid Iona dropped six of seven including five in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference and fell to fifth in the conference with a record of 9-7. Since then the Gaels, led by Jones the nation’s third-leading scorer with 23 points per game, rattled off five straight including a victory over Manhattan in the MAAC championship to earn an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.

One year after Scott Machado (Houston Rockets) and Michael Glover (Hacettepe, Turkey) graduated to professional basketball, the Gaels have struggled to find consistency.

Iona’s season started with tragedy before the players even arrived on campus. Top recruit, Michael Haynes, was killed during a random shooting in Chicago. The Gaels journey hadn’t even started and they absorbed hardship.

Head coach Tim Cluess spoke of the tragedy at the time: “His passion, energy and excitement for his opportunity this year makes this tragedy even more upsetting.”

The challenges continued from there. Nyandigisi Moikobu missed the season’s first six games with an illness.  Grant Ellis contracted mononucleosis during the pre-season and was lost for the year.

This added to the difficulty of trying to get transfers Tavon Sledge and David Laury acclimated to the system.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves several times this year,” Cluess said late last month.   “We’ve gone through a lot injuries, additions, subtractions.”

Laury became eligible to play at the end of the fall semester per the NCAA transfer requirements. The Gaels got on a roll. A.J. English won MAAC Rookie of the Week.  Iona won six straight before a road loss at Rider. Iona looked like its old self.

Then English injured his hand and was lost for the season. Jones and Sean Armand were dealing with nagging injuries, and the losses mounted.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re in your first couple of weeks because everyone’s role changed so often,” Cluess added.  “Somebody who has been a spot up shooter now is needed to handle the ball a little bit. Somebody who might be a defender of a third guard might now have to play a first or second guard. It definitely throws things off.”

First came an overtime loss at first-place Niagara.  Then the Gaels dropped a last-minute decision at Canisius.  Marist downed Iona in double overtime before the Gaels rebounded to defeat Rider.

The losses continued from there. Manhattan tripped the Gaels in another double ot game. Fairfield beat the Gaels by two, and Indiana State trimmed the denizens of the Hynes Center in an ESPN Bracketbusters matchup. In all, Iona dropped six by a combined margin of 11.

“It’s been a struggle,” Jones admitted. “Trying to get on the guys to buy into everything and learn their roles. At the same time, you got to stay the course. You got to continue to believe in your guys. You got to make them understand that you believe in them.”

The Gaels combine a formidable inside-outside threat. Jones possesses the ability to score from the outside, but he also attacks the rim with authority. Armand (108-of-262/41 percent) poses a deep threat.

Laury provides a capable complement to Taaj Ridley in the paint.  At 6-8, he finishes his jump hook with either hand, but Laury also can step away from the basket and demonstrates keen court vision. With the lane open, the 6-7 Ridley scores eight a game while grabbing more than five rebounds.

“At this particular time in the season not a lot of teams are getting better, they’re getting smarter,” Jones noted. “They’re kinda fine tuning their system. Not everybody is getting better.”

The 15-seed Gaels will take on 2-seed Ohio State in the second round of the West Region. Tip time is scheduled for 7:15 at the University of Dayton Arena on Friday.

Iona’s at-large bid was only the second in MAAC history. St. Peter’s won the conference title in 1995 with Manhattan also earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Iona fell 78-72 to BYU in the opening round of the 2012 tournament.

Jones started at point guard for the 2010-11 Arizona Wildcats team which advanced to the Elite Eight. He transferred to Iona for personal reasons.

“We haven’t hit that stride where Iona has arrived,” Jones explained. “If we’re hitting it now, and it’s coming out, it’s going to be good for us.”

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