Gaels in full force as major test looms

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- The Iona Gaels were in a hurry Thursday afternoon, trying to cram in a two-hour practice before boarding a bus to Baltimore.

And before they put on their practice gear, they had to dress up in their game uniforms for a team photo. The picture will appear in the program for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament next month -- a picture, they hope, of the school's first championship team since 2006.

First, the Gaels (19-5, 11-2 MAAC) face their biggest game of the season thus far Friday -- a first-place showdown with Loyola of Maryland (18-5, 11-2), airing on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET.

"It is one of many, but I do like to get our guys jacked up for the games like this, because I think it puts a playoff environment in there," Iona coach Tim Cluess said in a pre-practice interview. "It's gonna be a sold-out house, the emotions are high, it's great for both teams that we've both done so well thus far."

Iona is right where it's supposed to be, after being picked to win the MAAC in the conference's preseason coaches poll. The question is, can the Gaels take it one step further than they did last season, when they were upset in the MAAC title game by St. Peter's?

If so, they will be a mid-major that no power-conference team wants to see in its pairing come Selection Sunday.

Iona's run-and-gun offense is among the best in Division I -- ranked third in points per game (83.3), fourth in field goal percentage (50) and first in assists per game (19.5).

The headliner this season has been 6-foot-1 senior point guard Scott Machado, who is leading the nation in assists (10 per game) and garnering the attention of NBA scouts. Machado was very good last season, second in the country in assists at 7.6 per game, but has obviously taken it up another notch.

"He's been great. He's gone to a whole 'nother level," Cluess said. "He's definitely exceeded my expectations for the year, and hope he continues to do so."

"It was more of knowing what I had to do for the team, and knowing what was gonna help us get better as a team and win more games," said Machado, who also is averaging 13.6 points per game. "Just getting everybody involved in games, which helps us out a lot. And we have a bunch of pieces. So once everybody's going, it's hard to guard us."

He does have a lot of help, starting with 6-foot-7 senior forward Mike Glover, a junior college transfer who burst onto the Division I scene last season, and averaged 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds.

Glover, the preseason MAAC player of the year, has been overshadowed by Machado this year but has put up almost identical numbers (18.5 ppg, 9 rpg), and is shooting an astounding 66.5 percent from the field.

"I could care less about that," Glover said. "Scott is like a little brother to me. ... He deserves everything that he's getting right now."

The big addition this season has been 6-foot junior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones, who transferred from Arizona, where he was a starter on a team that went to the Elite Eight in last year's NCAA tournament. Jones is Iona's second-leading scorer (16.2 ppg) and has been playing better of late, including pouring in 43 points in a win over Canisius on Feb. 2.

"It's been a major adjustment," Jones said of learning to play with his new team. "Some people would say, 'Well, I'm playing good, averaging 16 points a game.' A lot of people would say, 'Oh, those are great numbers.' But what I expect of myself, and what my teammates and coaches expect of me, I don't think that's a good season.

"This is the time where I need to step it up a notch."

That's quite a trio to go to battle with, but Cluess said Thursday that the key to his team's success over the next few weeks will be the play of the rest of his squad. "I just think that I'm looking for more consistent shooting from our secondary players," Cluess said. "They need to do a better job of being more consistent out there from game to game. It can't be all or nothing so often."

That includes guys such as sophomore Sean Armand, the team's fourth-leading scorer, who is averaging 8 points per game off the bench. Armand erupted for 32 points, knocking down a school-record 10 3-pointers, in a win over Siena on Jan. 3. But then he went scoreless in back-to-back games at the end of the month.

"For us to be good, we have to get contributions from them," Cluess added. "Mike, Scott and Momo I think are gonna be pretty steady players. Obviously on a day that one of them is great, we have a chance to be very good."

Iona has won four straight and has five more regular-season games to go after its test Friday night in Baltimore. But with a current RPI ranking of 59, the Gaels know their season, and their NCAA tournament chances, likely will come down to the MAAC tourney in Springfield, Mass., starting March 3.

Back in November, Jones boldy said his new team was capable of going just as far as his Arizona Wildcats did a year ago -- to the Elite Eight, knocking on the door of the Final Four.

Jones did not back down from that boast Thursday.

"I still feel that way. I feel that way even more now," he said. "Nobody wants to run like us, nobody wants to press like us, nobody shoots the 3 like we shoot the 3, nobody gets after it like us.

"If we can put it together for this last [part] of the season, I think we'll be unstoppable."