By adding an up-tempo, fun style of play to this 40-year-old recruiting pitch, Cluess has been able to put together a team with one of the best offenses in the country, and one that has the potential to win a NCAA Tournament game, something the school hasn’t done since 1980. Cluess’ team scores a lot, runs a lot, passes a lot and then scores some more. The 19-5 Gaels are currently second in the country in points per game, 12th in points per possession, first in assists per game and 18th in possessions per game. Their point guard, Scott Machado, leads the country in assists, is being scouted by NBA teams (Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak went to an Iona game a few weeks ago) and has been described by ESPN’s Jay Bilas as “perhaps the best all-around point guard in the country.” The senior, along with Lamont “Momo” Jones—a junior transfer who started at point guard for Arizona last season—and Mike Glover—a senior forward who began his collegiate career at Seton Hall and was this year’s MAAC Pre-season Player of the Year—give Iona a Big Three that can match up with nearly every team in the country.
“We have three high level, major players that everyone knows about,” Jones says. “We’re just as good as any team out there and we can beat any team out there and. I don’t think people view us as a mid-major. We’ve beat some teams that, quite frankly, can beat anybody, and we’ve hung in there with some great teams in some games that we should have won.”
As good as Machado and Glover are, it was the addition of Jones that transformed Iona into a team capable of making a Sweet 16 run. Jones’ path to New Rochelle is an interesting story in itself; he left Arizona for Iona after deciding that he needed to be closer to his sick grandmother in Harlem. When news leaked that Arizona’s starting point guard had essentially become a free agent—the NCAA said that because of the circumstances of his transfer, Jones would not have to sit out a year—every school in the area was drooling at the chance to add a starting point guard from an Elite Eight team. The fact that he chose Iona over schools like St. John’s, well that’s just another notch on Iona’s recruiting belt.
“It wasn’t even really a choice, I needed to be in the city and at the time, I felt like Iona was the best team in the city,” Jones says. “St. John’s reached out, but that wasn’t somewhere I was going to end up. The thing about New Rochelle is that it’s the city, but it’s not the city. I can get to the city if I need or want to, but there’s not a lot of trouble to get into up here. This was the place where I needed to be and it was the best choice for me.”
Jones and Machado couldn’t be happier with their decisions to come to Iona; both players have fallen in love with their coach, their school and their home. “Being at Iona has been a blessing for me,” Machado says. “Coming to Iona one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.”
Now Iona faces the problem that dozens of mid-majors encounter every year: turning its success into something consistent and sustainable that remains on campus after the team’s stars depart. It’s taken the first step by signing Cluess to an extension through the ‘16-17 season, a move that, based on what his current players have to say about him, should ensure Iona’s ability to recruit. “When I switched out of Arizona, I wanted to be somewhere where I could play my style of basketball, a city style of basketball that could get me noticed,” Jones says. “Coach (Cluess) offered me that, and he has never once has gone back on his word.”
Adds Machado: “Coach is a really good coach. He lets you play, and lets us play in a fast break pace. And I think that’s what every basketball player likes: being able to show his game.”
It’s words like “city” and “noticed,” words that Iona basketball coaches have been using in the living rooms of recruits for man than 30 years, that have helped the Gaels develop their unlikely tradition. Add a little “style of play” to the mix, like Cluess has, and you just might have the recipe that every mid-major so desperately wants: one to prolonged success.