As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
11. Iona Gaels
For the second consecutive year in a row the Gaels will be the consensus pick to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). Come March, Iona will look to make it to their 4th consecutive appearance in the MAAC Championship game in Albany. The Gaels have faced their archival Manhattan in each of the last three MAAC Championship games where the Jaspers have taken the last two.
While the Gaels have cruised through the regular season the last two years, leaving both mid-major and high-major opponents in their wake, their issue has been team depth (especially interior depth) come March when they are forced to play in a tournament setting. The combination of head coach Tim Cluess' high octane 'run and gun' offense and the MAAC tournament format (3 games in 3 days) seriously exposed in the regular season champions' lack of depth.
This year the Gaels have a few things working in their favor. First, they will be returning A.J. English (20.1 ppg), one of the best shooters the MAAC has ever seen, Schadrac Casimir (14.5 ppg), reigning MAAC Rookie of the year, and Isaiah Williams (13.3 ppg) the Motor of the Iona Gaels and most natural shooter on the team. English is coming off his junior season where he collected his second straight First Team All-MAAC selection and should share a leadership role with fellow senior Isaiah Williams.
Despite returning starters that account for over 50 points per games, the Gaels will lose 2014-15 MAAC Player of the year, forward David Laury who added an additional 20 points per game and was their only real threat in the paint. Cluess will look to replace the dominant big man with two transfers. The first, Jordan Washington, a 6'-8", 255 lb junior JUCO transfer [Indian Hills (IA)] forward has been hyped by Cluess all off-season. According to John Rothstein of CBS Sports, Washington has dropped 25 lbs since stepping foot in New Rochelle and is expected to be a double-double threat in the MAAC. The second, is Aaron Rountree, a 6'-8", 200 lb graduate transfer forward from Wake Forest. While at Wake Forest, Rountree served as a role player for the Deamon Deacons averaging 2.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, and 1.1 apg. Rountree was a 3-star recruit out of high school and was highly recruited by high major programs across the country. While his numbers at Wake Forest were nothing to write home about, another big body in the paint with ACC experience will certainly help make the loss of Laury a little bit easier to swallow.
Not only has Iona beefed up their front court depth to help with end of season fatigue, but the MAAC has also made the road to the NCAA Tournament a little easier for the Gaels this season. The MAAC has revised the conference tournament format to put a higher incentive on finishing in 1st or 2nd place in the regular season. In the previous format, the #1 seed Iona Gaels would had to play three consecutive days (Saturday, Sunday & Monday) to win the MAAC championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the new format the 1 & 2-seeds will play the winners of the 8/9 & 7/10 games respectively on Friday followed by a day off on Saturday before the semi-finals and finals on Sunday and Monday. The day off will surely help a team like Iona, with a high pace offense, recover before the semi-finals and finals.
Finally, one of the most overlooked aspects for the upcoming season is how the new NCAA rule changes will affect teams across the country. One of the most influential rule changes that will be implemented in the 2015-16 season is the new 30 second shot clock. While other teams will have to find ways to adapt to the new 30 second shot clock rule, it will essentially have zero affect on the Gaels, who strive to have their first shot off with 15+ seconds left on the shot clock. Furthermore, the Gaels who are an offensive-minded team ranked an abysmal 320th in defense last year allowing opponents to score 73.3 points per game. The shortened shot clock should help the gaels allow less points per game to opponents.
The Gaels have the toughest non-conference schedule in the MAAC with an average opponent RPI of 132.4 including 7 schools covered by Mid-Major Madness and 2 fellow preseason mid-major Power 15 teams. They will be tested in the first game of the season when they take on fellow Preseason Mid Major Power 15 opponent (#7) Valparaiso Crusaders (11/15) in Indiana. They will then travel to Corvallis to take on Oregon State (11/17) before coming home to take on CAA foe Delaware (11/20). After two December conference games, they will travel to Tulsa on December 8th and welcome Texas Southern of the Sun-Belt conference on the 12/16. On December 19th the Gaels will travel to Kingston RI to take on MMP15 (#5) Rhode Island Rams from the A-10 conference, followed by a trip to Las Vegas to face UCSB (Big West) and Akron (MAC) on 12/22 & 12/22 in the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic. Their final non-conference test will be a home game against Drexel (CAA) on December 28th in New Rochelle.
The Gaels will have 8 regular season games nationally televised on the ESPN family of networks including both matches against their local rival Manhattan College on January 29th in New Rochelle and February 26th in Riverdale. They will begin their pursuit of the NCAA Tournament bid at the MAAC tournament on March 4th at the Times Union Center in Albany NY. Baring a key injury or serious let-down, we expect the Gaels to finish atop the MAAC conference and be a top seed in the MAAC conference tournament. The question for the Gaels will be wether or not this is the year that they have the depth to power through the conference tournament field and make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.