Thursday, November 3, 2011 Updated: November 4, 3:40 PM ET
Talent, tough love have Iona sparkling
By Kieran Darcy ESPNNewYork.com
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- It was a startling sight late Wednesday morning -- the preseason player of the year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Iona forward Mike Glover, cleaning the floor of the Hynes Center.
Glover's team had just lost an intra-squad scrimmage, the last segment of a grueling three-hour practice, by 21 points. Iona coach Tim Cluess was not thriled with the effort. "Winning's gotta mean more, guys," Cluess said.
The punishment? The losing team had to mop the entire perimeter of the gymnasium -- three basketball courts wide -- by hand. The players had to remain standing, hunching over to get the job done with a shirt or towel. And they couldn't cross their feet -- just one small slide-step at a time.
"Guys hate that one," said Cluess. "It's painful."
Cluess is riding his players hard this fall, for good reason. Iona -- which went 25-12 last season -- returned its top two players, added a key transfer from the Pac-12 and has a chance to be one of the top mid-major teams in the country this season.
Tim Cluess' team is returning its top two players, including senior guard Scott Machado.
"I like our chances against anybody," Cluess said.
The returning players are used to painful lessons. This past March, the No. 2-seeded Gaels, favored to win the MAAC championship game against No. 4-seeded St. Peter and advance to the NCAA tournament, were instead upset by the Peacocks, 62-57.
It's a game the players still think about all the time. "I think that's what pushes us guys to just give it 110 percent every day," Glover said.
Glover is the biggest reason Iona was picked to win the MAAC in this year's preseason coaches poll. The 6-foot-7 senior averaged 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game last season, and his coach says he will be even better this year.
"I think he got stronger," Cluess said. "Secondly, I think he's worked on his ball-handling skills, where he's putting it on the floor better, he's passing it from the perimeter better.
"His shooting is better, but it's streaky right now, 'cause he's just not used to being a guy who takes jump shots. It's a work in progress on a daily basis."
Also back is 6-1 senior guard Scott Machado, who was second in the nation in assists (7.6) and second on his team in scoring (13.2).
"I think Scott's much better than he was a year ago, I don't think it's even close," said Cluess. "I think his conditioning is much better, his motor is much better, he's shooting much better, he's making better decisions with the ball."
The X factor is Lamont "Momo" Jones, a 6-foot junior guard and Harlem product who transferred to Iona from Arizona. Jones was the starting point guard on the Wildcats team that advanced to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight last season, averaging 9.7 points and 2.4 assists per game.
Jones elected to switch schools to be closer to his sick grandmother, and the NCAA granted him a waiver meaning he would not have to sit out this season.
"He's just competitive by nature," said Cluess. "He brings some leadership for sure. He's a guy who's been in those big-game situations and knows how to play within them.
"He's a perfect fit for our style."
That style is to score, and score often. As a team, Iona was 15th in the country in points per game last season (79), and 19th in field goal percentage (47.4). In their second year under Cluess, and with Jones added to the mix, you'd expect the Gaels to be even more explosive this season.
In fact, in the second half of Wednesday's scrimmage, Cluess had the shot clock set to 10 seconds, instead of 35 -- each team had to get a shot off within 10 ticks on every possession.
"That's one of our fun drills," Cluess said. "It makes you a little more aggressive offensively. It's a conditioning drill, but it's also an offensive aggression drill. A lot of times guys will hesitate out there and not be aggressive with the ball -- we want to get all of our guys aggressively trying to either make a play for themselves or for a teammate, quickly."
Glover said the chemistry on the court has been excellent during the preseason. "I think Momo's really gonna help us out throughout the season," Glover said. "I'll say from last year to this year, we're definitely a much faster team, and that's gonna be scary."
The Gaels open the regular season on Thursday, Nov. 17, in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off against Purdue. A win over the Boilermakers would likely lead to a matchup with Temple, which made the NCAA tournament's Round of 32 a year ago. Alabama, ranked No. 17 in the country, looms on the other side of the bracket.
Glover is looking forward to the trip south. "I think we really have the chance to win the whole tournament," Glover said.
Jones has his sights set even higher.
"I think a lot of the pieces that I had playing at Arizona, we have here, and I think we have a little bit more," said Jones. "I think with the pieces that we have on this team and the way we work on a daily basis, that we can actually get to an Elite Eight, a Final Four."
Can't blame Jones for being excited.
He didn't have to wipe the floor after practice.