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Defending MAAC champion Iona is trying to put it together through injury, turnover, and turmoil

Plenty happened this offseason in New Rochelle, both good and bad.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Pittsburgh Practice Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ROCHELLE — Iona coach Tim Cluess has a team of 10 guys right now. It’s not as many as he was expecting, but more than he had just a few days ago.

The Gaels had four total practices with their complete roster before their season opener against Albany and they still appeared to be figuring things out.

It’s not a surprise.

With just 11 active scholarship players coming into the season (UMKC transfer Isaiah Ross has to sit out this year), the Gaels were always going to be shorthanded. But with the all-league trio of Rickey McGill, E.J. Crawford, and Roland Griffin returning, Iona had enough. A path to a fourth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament seemed realistic, though they could not afford a significant injury to a key rotation player.

Iona also couldn’t afford Griffin being kicked off the team after a physical altercation with an assistant coach. That happened three weeks ago, while Andrija Ristanovic and Jahnathan Maxwell were working their way back from injury.

So, for a while, Iona practiced with eight players.

In Griffin, Iona lost versatility, defense, scoring, and rebounding, and it narrowed its margin for error that much more.

“We have to get in better shape because these guys have to play longer,” Cluess said. “Right now, we’re not in game shape.”

Having 10 players — and two of them have barely practiced — was enough on Friday when Iona defeated Albany, 72-68. But just barely. The Great Danes jumped out to an 11-1 lead and stayed ahead deep into the second half. For a while, the Gaels had no flow offensively.

“Everybody’s new to each other so we were just trying to get a feel for everybody,” McGill said of that tough first half. “It’s good that [Ristanovic and Niksa Nikolic] came in the game and hit some big shots. I think that was a turning point for us.”

The team looked like what it was: a group that had a few practices together but no games yet. McGill and Crawford are the only two left who saw minutes last season.

“We ask more out of them,” Cluess said of his entire team. “We ask them to be in the gym longer, work a little harder. Their roles grow because of the lack of numbers sometimes.”

Cluess said that means Crawford has to play on the wing and in the post, and that Robert Morris transfer Isaiah Still needs to be ready to play any position 1 to 5.

In the first half on Friday, it took more than five minutes for Iona to score its first field goal and over 13 minutes before the Gaels cracked double figures. They trailed 23-8 before finally finding a groove. It started with six straight field goals in the paint, including a pair of layups from Crawford. A minute later, Ristanovic hit back-to-back threes and Iona was suddenly within a point. The Gaels trailed by four at halftime despite shooting just 37 percent and 3-13 from three overall.

To Albany’s credit, the Great Danes didn’t give up the lead until 11:07 to play, but Iona ramped up the pressure defensively and seemed to have control. Albany committed 13 turnovers in the second half and 22 overall. Iona scored 33 points off of Albany’s miscues.

“Our defensive intensity helped us a lot,” Cluess said. “We got a couple turnovers, we got out off some rebounds because we rebounded the ball better, and got down the court better.”

As promising as the second half against Albany may have been, the road only gets tougher from here. Iona visits New Mexico next and has games at Providence and VCU on the schedule. Then there’s MAAC play, where they’ll try and take down preseason favorite Rider.

The program has the tradition. The coach has the playbook. Some of the players have been the experience. The only question that remains is if they can keep the numbers.