Iona College held its annual Sports night program for alumni in New York City on Wednesday evening hosted by school President Dr. Joseph Nyre and Athletic Director Eugene Marshall Jr.
The cross country coach Richard Santos described the continued success of the team which finished ninth nationally in Division One at the NCAA's last year and women's basketball coach Anthony Bozzella talked about new players and the team's summer trip to Canada.
The evening turned to men's basketball coach Tim Cluess who is rebuilding his squad from his NCAA season last spring after departure of six seniors including Scott Machado and Michael Glover. Coach Cluess has four returning players along with nine new players recruited to the team which will start practice on Friday.
The big name to basketball fans will be Lamont "Momo" Jones the former Arizona "Elite Eight" player from Harlem, will now be leading the Iona team in his second season in New Rochelle. Coach Cluess feels Jones has already demonstrated growth in leadership skills in his senior year, an important factor on a team that is rebuilding with nine new players on the roster.
When I met "Momo" last year his perspective about both basketball and school work at Iona was impressive and genuine. He told me in an interview last December about working closely with his teachers to get his work done that his grandmother keeps him focused on academics. Coach Cluess described Wednesday night that Momo is becoming an effective leader for the new players not only on the court, but also with academics and life as college students.
"Momo had a great year for us last year. His game has transformed probably at the same level as Scott Machado did from junior to senior year. He has really worked very hard to improve his leadership skills. He has been a tremendous leader of all our young men."
Jones averaged 15.7 points and 2.9 assists a game last year as a two guard playing off Scott Machado. About Jones' role on the court leading this team, Coach Cluess said,
"Momo is playing the point for us this year, he can score the ball at a high rate as you know, but he is also getting everyone else involved. He really takes it on him to mimic Scott Machado in the number of assists Scott got, but at the same time score the basketball and play at even a faster pace than we did the past two years, if you can believe that. So we are thrilled to have him at our point guard spot."
Junior Sean Armand has impressed me since his freshman year when we did an interview during the CIT post season tournament. Since then when I visit the gym Sean often runs over and says hello, not every college student is this thoughtful. Last spring he was one of a handful of athletes who attended the announcement meeting for the appointment of Gene Marshall as the new Iona Athletic Director, a show of interest in the leadership of his athletic program. Of course Sean is impressive at shooting his three point shot. Last season Armand had a big night at Madison Square Garden scoring 32 points versus Siena, about him Coach Cluess said,
"Sean Armand has gone from a freshman who was about 165 pounds, to a great leader on our campus, now 6'4" about 215 pounds, just transformed everything about himself on and off the court. Last year and the first year, he was basically a kid who could knock down a three point shot, now he is a our smartest basketball player, he has learned more than anyone that we we have had. He will lead us shooting, handling the ball, we are really excited about Sean."
Coach Cluess complimented the leadership of both Jones and Armand going into the new season with working to help the new Gaels acclimate to New Rochelle and to handle the expectations for growth and success Iona has for its athletes,
"They have grabbed the whole group and showed them the ropes on and off the court, how to behave in the classroom, on the court, outside in public, in all the different areas that we expect our student athletes to represent the school, they have been tremendous."
A third player back from the starting nucleus of the 2011-12 team is senior Taj Ridley from the Bronx. Ridley is a power forward who often started last year but often found himself on bench averaging 18.5 minutes. He can be an effective inside player averaging 4.0 rebounds and 6.7 points per game with a field goal percentage of 51%. Still Ridley had times he needed to be more focused and consistent. His second year in New Rochelle is an opportunity to show that he can play more minutes.
"Taj has really bought into working harder, he has really grown in his life because of Iona College, he has taken responsibility for working harder. I expect a lot more from Taj Ridley. Taj has really grown his is becoming the third leader on our team, so I expect a much bigger role from Taj this year, he is going to give us a lot in different ways."
The fourth returning player highlighted was Nyandigisi Moikobu from Seattle who played sparingly last year, known as "Digs, the 6'7" senior scored 15 points in 17 games last year, commented the coach,
"Diggs, he has been a tremendous man around campus, but just can not seem to avoid the injury bug. He has gotten hurt for the third time this preseason. We expect him to have a bigger role for our program this year."
Coach Cluess described several of his new players:
Tre Bowman: A 6-5 guard-foward, who originally committed to Penn State but played at Midland CC.
"We expect huge things out of Tre, he was a top 50 recruit. He can shoot the three, he can drive the basket, he is type of player we have not had here, an athletic wing who can do a lot of everything, he will help our defense having him out there."
Curtis Dennis: Guard from the Bronx who played at Blessed Sacrament, transferred from University of Toledo but is eligible to play right away.
"Will be able to play coming from Toledo. 6-4 wing player, really good to have an older guy around with leadership skills, like to just talk about life in our. He is a local player who wanted to come to us earlier but we did not have a scholarship available. Will do great things for the school as well".
Shawn Jackson: A player not on the summer roster announcement, apparently enrolling at Iona in September, played 26 games for Murray State before transferring to JUCO of Northwest Florida where he averaged ten points and five rebounds per game before grades sidelined him. Zach Braziller of the New York Post wrote last month, that his JUCO coach Steve Forbes described him as a "Good Defender". Coach Cluess commented,
"A very late arrival, 6'9" about 240 pounds, he is one of the most high energy performers you will see, take the Randy Dezouvre's energy and put that in a 6'9" player, he will give you every ounce of energy he has. He is polite as can be, he is going to be great representative of our school, he is tremendous."
AJ English III: A 6' 3" shooting guard, averaged 18 points per game at St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, CT.
"A phenomenal freshman. AJ is at another level, his father played in the NBA for four or five years, comes from a good pedigree, He is another 6'4" point guard, two guard, three guard, can play every position, he is dynamic, plays with a lot of energy, has growing up to do like most freshman, believe he is going to be a big part of our program this year."
The Iona community continues to mourn the loss of a member of the recruiting class, Chicago native Michael Haynes who died in a shooting in July. Coach Cluess offered heartfelt comments telling a story about Michael's recruiting visit and the key question had,
"Michael was a tremendous young man...On his recruiting visit he asked, will you mentor me off the court, I know you will teach me basketball, will you teach me about life, how to behalf, how to act, I never had a male role model, never had a father, my older brother was a member of a gang, if you can do that for me, I want to come to Iona College".
Coach Cluess talked about how Haynes was looking forward to getting away from the crime filled streets of Chicago's south side. Shortly before Haynes died he spoke to Coach Cluess who recalled his looking forward to the start of school,
"I can't wait get to get to Iona to change my life."
The Gaels open up the 2012-13 schedule at home against the University of Denver on November 9th, last year in Denver the Gaels won an overtime thriller, a standout moment of their season.
Ken Kraetzer covers Iona basketball for Sons of the American Legion Radio and WVOX in New Rochelle, NY Twitter: SAL50NYRadio.
Ken Kratzer is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.