Monday, October 24, 2011 Updated: October 25, 9:25 PM ET
Iona, Fairfield begin chase for MAAC title
Late last week Iona received news that Lamont "MoMo" Jones, instrumental in helping Arizona to the Elite Eight last season, has been granted a hardship waiver and can play immediately, instead of sitting in residence under NCAA rules.
The MAAC regular-season conference race and postseason automatic qualifier berth just got more interesting and competitive with Jones joining the Gaels.
The truth is this league was already locked in to having one of the best races, outside of the power six, with or without Jones.
But now that he's eligible, the stakes are even higher with Fairfield and Iona preparing for what should be a chase to the finish. At the MAAC level, it will rival anything the Horizon or Missouri Valley has to offer this season.
Adding MoMo Jones to Iona's lineup makes the Gaels better. But will it be good enough to get past Fairfield in the MAAC?
"This league is very top heavy,'' said St. Peter's coach John Dunne, whose Peacocks stunned the field by winning the MAAC AQ on Fairfield's home court in Bridgeport, Conn., last season. "Iona and Fairfield are the most talented. The additions they have clearly make them much more talented. But it will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes those teams.''
Loyola (Md.) and Rider, both with many returnees, are seen as the potential St. Peter's in this league -- a team that could surprise the favorites and win the automatic berth with three strong days in Springfield, Mass. (site of this season's MAAC tournament).
"We got Jordan Latham eligible from Xavier, too,'' Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said. "I like Fairfield 1, Iona 2 and us and Rider after that. I think it could be a great race. We're deep. We're not as talented. But we're as deep as any team in the league. The key will be Jeff Jones from Virginia for Rider. Can he light it up or not? Fairfield has a new coach, but [it'll] be fine. And [Iona's] [Mike] Glover will be a targeted man.''
MoMo Jones joins an Iona team that is led by returnees Scott Machado on the wing and Glover inside.
Boston College transfer Rakim Sanders is eligible to join the Stags, last season's regular-season MAAC champs, alongside returnees Derek Needham and center Ryan Olander.
The difference between the Stags and Gaels is that Fairfield has two high-profile transfers instead of just one. Former Houston point guard Desmond Wade is also eligible, and he'll take over as the playmaker, sliding Needham to the wing with Sanders as a forward.
"I think Rakim is the best player in the league,'' said former Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, now the head coach at Providence. "I don't think there is one matchup in the MAAC [that doesn't favor] him. There is an answer for Glover in the MAAC, and that's length in Olander. The question will be Fairfield's overall chemistry. Now there is a true point guard in Desmond Wade. But the X factor will be Rakim, because no one is close to him.''
Sanders was a tough matchup for ACC teams that played the Eagles. But his last season with BC started poorly with an ankle injury, and neither he nor the team recovered, as he couldn't fit back into the lineup with Reggie Jackson. Sanders found a new home with Cooley, a former BC assistant with strong ties to Sanders and Eagles coach Al Skinner. Cooley is gone, but new coach Sydney Johnson, formerly of Princeton, has been pleasantly surprised by Sanders so far.
The team went to Italy in August, and through the first week of practice, Sanders has lived up to the hype.
"He has been very good for us, and there is a reason he started his career in the ACC,'' Johnson said. "He has that caliber of talent. He has a high basketball IQ. He looks the part, too. He's a strong physical kid, who is fast and quick and has an understanding of how to play. He does the right things, and he's unselfish. I'm very pleased with him.''
Johnson said Wade is much more of a natural point, but he can play off the ball like Needham. He said he plans to alternate who handles the ball.
That question is an ongoing issue at Iona now that MoMo Jones is eligible. Machado handled it last season. And Jones did the same for Arizona. Cooley said taking the ball out of Machado's hands could hurt the chemistry, unless this team jells quickly together.
Iona coach Tim Cluess hadn't addressed this topic, because he didn't know Jones' fate for this season. Jones got the waiver because he transferred back to New York, his hometown, to be closer to his ailing grandmother.
How does he solve the problem with who has the ball?
"Get two balls,'' Cluess said. "That's the interesting part. Realistically we're just starting to work on it on the court since we didn't want to invest time since we didn't know if they could play together. We will look at who has the ball, will they be interchangeable or if either can play the wing.''
Finding consistency next to Glover inside is also a question for the next few weeks. The expectation was that junior forward Taaj Ridley could be that person, but he has been hampered by foot and Achilles issues.
"I think it's wide-open,'' said Cluess, whose Gaels lost to St. Peter's in the MAAC final last March after the Peacocks upset Fairfield. "Fairfield has the edge. They won it last year, and they have two high-major players. But Loyola has five starters back and is a team that is dangerous. We have to make sure we have that team chemistry. Fairfield has the Boston College transfer, and he could be the best player in the league. They added Wade to what should be a powerhouse. But I like our chances against anybody with the way we shoot the ball.''
Iona and Fairfield have the mix of high-level transfers and four-year players who have blossomed into high-level college players. Each team could win a NCAA tournament game or two in the right scenario. But getting an at-large berth will be determined in the next two months.
The schedules for each favor getting recognized by the selection committee in March. Iona is in the wide-open Puerto Rico Tip-Off with an opener against Purdue on Nov. 17 and the possibility of playing Temple if the Gaels can knock off the Boilermakers. Playing at Marshall, a C-USA top-two team and going on the road in a winnable matchup at Richmond highlight the schedule. It doesn't hurt for power-rating points that Iona plays 11 road games before January.
Fairfield plays at Minnesota, a sleeper in the Big Ten, and has a legit shot to win the weakened Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Beating Old Dominion in December in Springfield will help, too. Drawing top-five UConn in Hartford, Conn., and visiting Drexel in late December will also assist the power rating.
Johnson walked into a ready-made situation to win again.
"This isn't a rebuilding project,'' said Johnson, who led the Tigers to a thrilling Ivy League playoff win over Harvard and then nearly clipped Kentucky in the NCAA tournament opener for both teams. "Ed positioned us. We don't have a lot of excuses. We're preparing ourselves the best we can for March. I want to look in the mirror and when the time comes I want us to have done everything we can to seize the moment and this opportunity.''