Iona’s point guard dilemma

Tim Cluess has won twenty or more games in his three seasons at Iona, but moments after the Gaels dropped a double-digit defeat to Ohio State in the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament, he was confronted with a reality he had yet to experience at the Division I level: an upcoming season without an established point guard.

Cluess is comfortable working with fresh faces: in both the 2013 and the upcoming season, he has had to teach his gameplan to a total of fifteen newcomers. He has, however, had the luxury of depending on the steady guidance of Scott Machado and Momo Jones at the point. As with any team, Cluess depends on his guards to shoulder a substantial amount of responsibility, but at Iona, the guards typically control the highest percentage of the Gaels’ possessions: Machado’s usage rate hovered around 25% playing under Cluess, and Jones used a whopping 30% of Iona’s possessions his senior season.

But days before practice begins at the New Rochelle-based school, Cluess is still uncertain who will fill the essential role. “We are going to have multiple players involved,” says Cluess. “We won’t just run off of one guy.” Though Iona scored 1.12 PPP in 2013, tops in the MAAC, it paled to the Gaels’ rating in 2012 (1.18), and while Tavon Sledge and DaShawn Gomez, two guards who came off the bench to spell Jones, return and figure to subsume some minutes at the 1, Cluess has contemplated alternative lineups. “We had two or three guys last season that couldn’t shoot, so defenses would sag,” notes Cluess. Sledge’s assist rate led the squad, but other than transition buckets, the sub-6’ guard was an offensive liability: per Hoop-Math.com, Sledge converted just 30% and 25% of his two and three-point field goals, respectively.

Gomez only played seven or so minutes a game in 2013, but since Gomez is one of several returning Gaels who connected on more than one-third of their three-point attempts, Cluess says Gomez, who transformed his body during the offseason, will see more playing time: “DaShawn is really able to shoot the ball, but we are trying to make him understand that without Momo, we need guys who can take and hit shots.”

The natural assumption for Jones’ heir, then, is Sean Armand. The stellar marksman has drawn praise from ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, who tweeted the 6’5” Armand is one of college basketball’s best shooters. Armand has never dipped below 40% from beyond the three-point arc during his three seasons in the MAAC, but the 2013 season was a turning point for Armand: it was the first time the guard attempted more than 60 two-point field goals. According to Cluess, the staff has drilled Armand to score off the bounce rather than settle for spotting up. “It’s been a work in progress since day one,” says Cluess. “Sean is going to make plays for his teammates, but he has to continue to read the defense better and realizing when to attack or pass off the bounce.” Armand was much more active in the halfcourt as a junior – the guard ran off screens (specifically flares) and isolation plays with more frequency – and Cluess has planned an additional wrinkle to fully round-out the senior’s game. “Sean is able to post up very well against guards his size, and has a size advantage when opponents use a smaller guy to get under him,” says Cluess, who intends to use pick and rolls to create mismatches on the block for Armand.

Cluess’ conundrum, then, is that if Iona will again contend for the MAAC’s automatic NCAA bid, Armand is needed off the ball. Cluess fully agrees that Armand is the Gaels’ best returning scorer, and since Jones attempted 30% of the team’s shots last season, Armand’s efficient touch is crucial to continue propelling Iona’s offense. While Armand has honed his ball-handling skills to get his ‘mates involved in the scoring column, but Iona’s offense clicks when opponents are so keyed on Armand wrecking halfcourt havoc, their heads constantly trying to locate the guard and allowing openings for other Gaels.

Surprisingly, Cluess may use David Laury and Mike Poole, two frontcourt players, to ensure Iona’s assist rate continues to lead the conference. Laury didn’t take the court until December, and it was obvious that despite his offensive rating of 110, the forward struggled with Iona’s pace. Like Gomez, Laury’s offseason was spent focusing on his conditioning. If Laury was to fill a larger role in Iona’s gameplan, excess body fat transferred from his various college stops needed to be lost. “When he was at junior college,” says Cluess, “he played one semester and then sat, so he has never really had a traditional preseason conditioning regime.”

Much of Laury’s offense involves camping within ten feet of the hoop, but despite consistent post ups, Laury (who already possesses a tight handle and the ability to convert difficult passes) didn’t facilitate as much as Cluess thinks he can as a senior. Laury has retooled his jump-shot, adding a long-range dimension to his game, and since he can get to the bucket with his dribble, his newfound shooting touch with force defenders to leave his teammates and create natural passing situations.

One option, of course, is Armand, but others include A.J. English, a sophomore who missed conference play after suffering a wrist injury, and Tre Bowman, a wing who Cluess has again penciled in as a starter. Consistency was not a hallmark of Bowman’s game in his first eligible season at Iona, but Cluess feels that his confidence has improved entering his senior year and the coach expects a needed scoring boost from Bowman. “What I like is his work ethic since the season ended last year,” says Cluess.

Following the firing of Mike Rice this spring, Poole transferred from Rutgers, and has been cleared to take the court immediately. Cluess is still unsure how he will use Poole, but his size – 6’6” – will allow for a myriad of different lineups. Should Iona go big, Poole will join Laury and wing Isaiah Williams on the frontline, but if Cluess decides to utilize a small lineup, Poole gives the coaching staff the option of being placed at the 1 offensively while guarding a big on the opposite side of the ball. “I like the way Mike makes plays for his teammates,” notes Cluess, “and he really enables us to play in many different ways.” Though he didn’t connect on it often during his junior year, Poole also can stretch the defense with a potent mid-range game, which will open up the interior for cuts (which did decline in ’13 but are an essential component of Laury’s game) and optimal spacing.

It was shocking when the MAAC preseason poll, released over a week ago, featured Manhattan at the top of the conference (and followed by Iona). The team returns arguably the MAAC’s top offensive player (as well as double-digit scorers in Bowman and Laury)and while Cluess has shown the coaching acumen to blend freshmen, ex-juco talents, and DI transfers into one of the nation’s deepest rotations, Cluess maintains that this season’s squad will have to share the ball more often. Jones was an offensive catalyst during his two years in New Rochelle, a player capable of constantly breaking opponents down off the dribble and scoring when the shot clock dipped under ten seconds. However, Cluess expressed doubts on the affects of Jones’ offensive dominance. “As good as Momo was at scoring, he often monopolized the ball and took other guys out of it,” says Cluess. “I look at our guys’ efficiency ratings, and his offensive rating was one of the lowest on the team — when his shot wasn’t going in, he wasn’t making plays to make others better.” Since the year’s squad won’t have a breakdown player like Jones, or a Gael to seamlessly slide into the 1, moving without the ball and consistent passing will be a crucial aspect to Iona’s potential success.