NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- Back in 2009-10, the Iona Gaels finished 241st out of 334 Division I teams in scoring. Kevin Willard's defense-first squad won 21 games by holding opponents to 62 points per game, before Willard was hired by Seton Hall.
In came Tim Cluess, who'd learned an up-tempo, offense-first style from his high school coach, Frank Morris. (It's where Rick Pitino and his protege, Billy Donovan, also learned it.)
So all Cluess had to do was take seven returning players of Willard's, and totally change the way they played.
"It was a little bit difficult at first, to be honest with you," Cluess told me in his office at Hynes Athletic Center, tucked into the Iona campus about 20 miles from Times Square. "Because they had had some success there [Willard's] last year. But I tried to point out to them their cumulative three years, I tried to point out to them where they stood nationally in assists, in scoring, in certain areas that I thought would make them a better team, and better individually. ... Kevin led you to the door, now it's time to finish the job."
It is impossible to argue with Cluess' results after three full years on the job. That first Iona team under Cluess went 25-12, 13-5 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They finished 14th in the country in scoring, and more significantly, 18th in the country in offensive efficiency. It wasn't just high tempo inflating their totals, but good shots, too.
The following year, Iona went 25-8, finished atop in the nation in scoring and made the NCAA tournament. Their two most effective players, forward Michael Glover and point guard Scott Machado, then departed, Machado for the NBA, Glover to play overseas.
So Cluess started again. And last season, thanks to transfer Lamont "MoMo" Jones, David Laury and Tre Bowman, along with holdover Sean Armand, the Gaels finished first in the nation in scoring, putting up a third straight top-20 offensive efficiency season while racing up and down the court, and earning a second straight NCAA bid.
Now, Cluess faces a different question than the ones when he first arrived. Whether a coach who never led a Division I team, though he'd had a ton of success in high school and at Division II C.W. Post, could win at Iona is no longer a question, nor is his system.
What Cluess has to figure out instead is: Just what is Iona's ceiling as a program?
He's certainly bringing in a higher class of talent than his predecessors. Most of his top performers have been transfers. Jones came from Arizona, Bowman from Penn State, Laury from junior college. It's hard to think of a bigger switch than the huge campuses in Tucson or Happy Valley to Iona, where just over 3,400 undergraduates attend, and where Hynes Athletic Center seats 2,600.
According to Cluess, much of it comes down to a more informed choice the second time around. In that sense, Cluess is a perfect coach for those players, having begun his career at St. John's, but concluded it at Hofstra in an effort to get more playing time.
"Two thirds of our team, three quarters of our team was transfers," Cluess said of his college team at Hofstra. "And we won 19 games. So I saw how it could work, saw it in a positive way."
But there's also the reality of his system, which sends his players up and down the court at dizzying speeds. I'm not sure there's been a more enjoyable team to watch over the past few years than Cluess' Gaels, and you can be sure his players know it, too.
"I definitely think it does, because I've seen it first-hand," Cluess said when I asked if he thought his system was a primary draw of players to Iona. "When you're playing this way, and kids know that they're going to be able to play that way -- kids like to score, let's face it. And they like to play fast. Then they have to figure out how to play fast. And that's the hardest part, when -- we have a lot of new guys this year -- understanding the commitment it takes to do it successfully.
"But guys like to score, and guys like offense, and guys like freedom. So I tell guys: 'If you can shoot, shoot. If you can't shoot, get better.'"
But Cluess underscored a limitation of his approach to date, which is that he's had his most talented players for significantly less than four years. This isn't a failure on his part -- Cluess has brought high-end talent to Iona, despite facing huge obstacles for doing so in every aspect of institutional comparison -- but it does mean creating his teams on the fly each season.
So the goal isn't as much winning an NCAA tournament game, for instance, as opposed to making Iona a success often enough that players he's eventually getting can come join the Gaels right away.
"I think if we put out a good product, players are going to want to come," Cluess said. "We have New York City to sell, we have our style of play to sell. We may not have the biggest gym or the biggest campus, but we have a lot of positives here ... there's no reason we can't become one of those mid-majors you hear about every single year."
There's another challenge inherent in the way Cluess is forced to build his Iona teams, though, one that reflects the way college basketball teams schedule. Each season, Cluess has made his Iona Gaels far better in February and March than they are in November-December, as they learn how to play the Cluess way. Unfortunately for Iona, playing in the MAAC, the number of signature wins available are generally few in number.
Thus, Cluess' Gaels have gone on the road early, while still coming together as a team, for the kind of tough wins that help with NCAA seeding. That meant games against Wake Forest, Georgia and La Salle last year, with the Gaels beating Georgia, and the same the season before, with wins over Maryland and St. Joseph's and a close loss to NCAA-bound Purdue. And it all happened as many of the Gaels were adjusting to a new school, not to mention playing in a new system, and together, for the first time.
"I don't know at our level, with what we have to offer here, if we're ever going to be that team to be fully four-year players," Cluess said. "I would like to say yes, but the reality is, when a kid comes here, sees what we have to offer, then goes to one of the bigger schools that kind of blow it away, just aesthetically, if it's his first time coming out of high school, maybe he doesn't realize: OK, let me look at the system. Let me look at the coach. Let me look at the success. Let me look at how many players there are at my position, and all of that.
"Kids are, unfortunately, very naïve early on. It's all about, what do we see on TV more, what's got the bigger arena. And I think that's why, when they're ready to leave, we're a very good option. Because they've come down to, 'I had all of that, and it wasn't fun, because it didn't pan out basketball-wise. And if I'm not doing well in basketball, school kind of stunk, too. So I think now that's how we get on an even playing field."
Plenty of other schools have taken note of the success Cluess is having, despite so much working against him at his current school. Cluess declined to discuss the process this past spring, when his alma mater, Hofstra, came calling. It is easy to imagine Cluess taking another step forward with the Gaels, and an even bigger college to come calling, just as Seton Hall did with Willard.
In this way, it is Iona College itself in a race against Cluess' program building, needing to improve and expand facilities to lock in the gains Cluess is winning for the school on the basketball court.
But in the meantime, this talented Iona team, still coming together after the loss of Jones, Taaj Ridley and two other seniors -- 40 percent of its scoring, per Cluess -- needs to just, you know, go into Allen Fieldhouse Tuesday night and take on Andrew Wiggins and Kansas, the team that just beat Duke on a neutral court. They return Armand and Laury, and have added true freshmen bigs Daniel Robinson and Ryden Hynes. But the impact newcomer is likely to be Isaiah Williams, a 6-foot-7 wing out of junior college.
Part of this matchup stems from the fact that Iona's President, Joseph E. Nyre, got his Ph.D. from Kansas. Part of it is that Cluess and Kansas assistant Norm Roberts (formerly head coach at St. John's) know each other from coaching against each other in high school. So this is a big deal for Iona as an institution, generally.
But there's more to it, now that Kansas vs. Iona is a reality.
"I remember going to watch them in the NCAA with Danny Manning at their place," Cluess said. "I was 10 rows up, doing the Rock Chalk Jayhawk, because I wanted them to win. It will be a really great opportunity for me and for my players to go to a storied school, and that atmosphere.
"We're gonna go in and tell our guys, 'Listen, you have dreams of being pros. These guys are pros. So here's your measuring stick of where you are. And when we leave there, we're sure gonna know a lot about us, and the things we need to work on."