Iona’s new faces will have plenty to prove this season

Ryan McFadden, Sports Editor

Iona College men’s basketball head coach Tim Cluess has seen his fair share of similarities and differences between last year’s team and this one. Just like the 2017-18 season, Iona’s roster features a handful of new players that outnumber the returners.

Nine players will be playing in a Gaels’ uniform for the first time to go along with two returners, senior Rickey McGill and junior E.J. Crawford. The process in getting these players adjusted to Iona’s style of play has been much different from last season, specifically due to some players getting injured.

“It’s been a lot slower since we’ve had a lot of injuries and illnesses,” Cluess said. “We didn’t have bodies until recently and I think that’s the biggest thing. In my mind, we are way behind than we were at this time last year because we haven’t had the numbers.”

Iona has had to deal with a preseason filled with injuries, but its biggest blow was losing forward Roland Griffin, who was suspended from the school due to an altercation with assistant coach Ricky Johns. Griffin was expected to play an integral role in Iona’s quest for a fourth-straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title.

Griffin was named Preseason Second Team All-MAAC and his versatility made him one of the top players in the conference. Griffin absence will force some of Iona’s newcomers to step up.

One new player on the roster is junior transfer Tajuan Agee. The Chicago native stands at 6-foot-8, who can play well in the paint and the perimeter.

“Tajuan Agee has tremendous amount of talent and ability,” Cluess said. “He’s 6-8 with a 7’2 wingspan, who can shoot and handle the ball a little bit. He can run the court, block some shots, so I think he’s going to be a big piece.”

Juniors Isaiah Still and Asante Gist, who didn’t play last season, are expected to play key parts in the Gaels’ lineup. Gist transferred from Eastern Kentucky, and was expected to sit out during the first semester, but he received a waiver from the NCAA, which allows him to play right away.

“Isaiah [Still] and Asante Gist, who sat out, are two really big pieces we are adding to the mix and they are both proven players at this level,” Cluess said.

Still, who spent two years at Robert Morris as one of the team’s top scorers, sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. In addition to being restricted by the transfer rule, Still spent nearly six months recovering from a knee injury.

“He was out for almost six months with a knee injury and knee surgery,” Cluess said. “He’s probably about 70 percent of who he was so I think when he gets his legs back and gets rid of the rust from sitting last year, I think he is going to be a tremendous player.”

With Iona dealing with all its injury problems, Cluess hopes to use Still as much as possible in the season opener against Albany on Nov. 9.

“We are only suiting up 10 and two are just coming off injuries,” Cluess said. “So we really only have eight guys that are healthy on our team right now. As many minutes we can get out of him, that’s what we are going to need.”

Iona has dominated the MAAC over the past few seasons, winning the conference championship three straight years. Cluess is looking forward to the opportunity at making history by becoming the first team in the MAAC to win four consecutive titles.

“I look at it as an exciting opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in this league before,” Cluess said. “I think that’s going to motivate our staff and players to keep working no matter what we do during the year. It’s about what we do in March. We have high expectations for our program every single year and there hasn’t been a single [year] I have been coaching here [that] I didn’t have the expectations of winning.”