Westchester County Journal News

There’s something special building in New Rochelle this year.

For the last 15 seasons, Iona has been the class of the MAAC and that’s no different in 2022-23. After a slow 2-2 start with losses to Hofstra and Santa Clara, the Gaels have ripped off five wins in a row.

What’s different in New Rochelle this year? Aside from the name change to Iona University from Iona College, the other main difference is that this year’s team could have a legitimate case as the best mid-major in America. Wins over two Atlantic-10 schools (Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure) were followed up by a double-digit, second-half comeback against a capable Princeton squad.

And still, Iona’s best chance at a resumé-building win lies ahead. New Mexico sits at No. 78 in KenPom and is 24th in NET ranking. Similarly, the Gaels are at 57 and 35, respectively. It’s far too early to try and project the NCAA Tournament field, but Iona is putting together as strong a non-conference resumé as they could have hoped for.

If they can beat New Mexico and a down SMU team, they will finish the non-conference slate at 7-2. Follow that up with a dominant performance in the MAAC and the committee is going to have something to think about in March. It’s all hypothetical at this point, but an Iona team with four or five losses would have a strong case against a power conference team with 15+ losses.

But again, this is purely speculative at this point. Iona needs to take care of business for any of this to matter. For what it’s worth, they have the pieces in place to turn this speculation into reality.

Big-time shotmakers win games in March. The Gaels have two in Daniss Jenkins and Walter Clayton Jr. It’s a backcourt that can score at all three levels of the floor, even the oft-forgotten mid-range. Versatile wings like Berrick JeanLouis and Cruz Davis can defend multiple positions and knock down shots.

As for the frontcourt, they are as long as they are deep. Nelly Junior Joseph has been one of the best big men in the MAAC for three years running. Osborn Shema’s insane length is a defensive nightmare. Even freshman Silas Sunday is making his presence felt in his limited minutes.

And Quinn Slazinski — who has only appeared in two games this season — might be Iona’s best player. Slazinski transferred in from Louisville and put together a solid first season in maroon and gold.

Depth, athleticism, length, shotmaking…and oh yeah, one of the best college basketball coaches in history. It took a while to get here, but no article about Iona basketball goes without a Rick Pitino mention. This is an undeniable advantage for the Gaels. Pitino is a masterful in-game tactician with a bevy of lineup permutations.

With what they have left on the schedule, there is no situation Iona can’t adapt to. With the depth they have, they can put max pressure on defenses with a full-court press for most of the game. Not to mention, Iona can clog up the paint with multiple bigs or pivot to a smaller group that spreads the floor with the three-ball.

It won’t take a “good” rest of the season for Iona to win an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They will have to be damn near perfect, but they are certainly capable of it.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.