13. Iona (2006-07 Record: 2-28, 1-17 MAAC)
Head coach: Kevin Willard
Returning Starters: 3- G De’Shaune Griffin (sophomore): 6-0, 160; G Milan Prodanovic (sophomore): 6-2, 180; F Devon Clarke (junior): 6-6, 205.
People had a good idea that the Gaels would take a step back in 2006-07 after going to the NCAA Tournament the previous. It’s not easy to replace the likes of Steve Burtt Jr. and Ricky Soliver. But an injury-riddled freefall? Well, that’s what happened to the Gaels, leading to the departure of Jeff Ruland as head coach. In comes Kevin Willard, a longtime assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville. Helping the Gaels cause this season will be the return of three major pieces to their machine: G Kyle Camper (7.0 ppg, 4.7 apg) and forwards Dexter Gray (10.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.3 apg) and Gary Springer (redshirted in 2006-07; 23 starts in 05-06). Camper and Springer missed either most of or all of last season due to injury, while Gray sat out the first semester due to his transfer from St. John’s, only to become academically ineligible after four games.
The injuries meant that youngsters such as F Devon Clarke (7.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G De’Shaune Griffin (4.9 ppg, 2.0 apg), G Milan Prodanovic (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and F Kevin Hassett (3.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg) had to step into roles that proved overwhelming at times. With these youngsters a year older and a year wiser, look for them to be better prepared to contribute. Camper will once again be given the ball at the point, but who is alongside him in the backcourt is up for debate. Starting Griffin may allow Camper to play some more off the ball, while Prodanovic played more as a two last season but needs to improve his shooting. Hassett, who stands at 6-8, is a forward who can knock down shots from behind the arc. And in freshmen Rashon Dwight (Bloomfield, NJ) and Andre Tarver (Bronx, NY), Iona will have two young guards more than capable of breaking into the rotation.
Up front, you can pretty much put Gray and Springer in the starting lineup, with either the aforementioned Clarke or Hassett starting at the three. But the depth up front took a hit when sophomore Alejo Rodriguez (7.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who led all MAAC freshmen in rebounding last season, had back surgery this past off-season. Rodriguez, who was hampered with back issues last season, will redshirt this year. Also available is senior John Kelly, who stands at seven feet tall. Kelly has recovered well from off-season shoulder surgery and should be able to contribute some minutes this year.
Looking at the Gaels’ schedule, they begin the season with four straight games on the road, including back-to-back roadies against North Carolina (November 18th) and Old Dominion (November 20th) as part of the Las Vegas Invitational. The tournament will send them to Vegas for games against South Carolina State and either Hartford or Jackson State the 23rd and 24th. Other non-conference games of note include back-to-back road games against Louisville (December 29th) and Vanderbilt (December 31st), and another appearance in ESPNU BracketBusters on February 23rd. Of their first fourteen games, eleven will be away from the Hynes Athletic Center.
This season is all about becoming acquainted with the way that Coach Willard wants things done, but don’t think for a second that the Gaels won’t be competitive. There’s some talent on the roster that didn’t get to show much last season, and the players thrust into prominent roles last season have a year’s experience under their belts. But to ask a team with limited interior depth to make a serious move up the conference standings with a new head coach may be a bit too much to ask right now. Iona will be a better basketball team this season, and hopefully the injury bug won’t bite them too often.