NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- No program fell as fast or as hard as Iona last season. After 23 wins, a Metro Atlantic championship and an NCAA appearance in the 2005-06 season, injuries and ineligibility quickly crushed any repeat title hopes. The Gaels' 2006-07 season began with 22 straight losses and devolved into a 2-28 embarrassment, with no wins until Feb. 5.
The school administration bought out former Iona star Jeff Ruland's coaching contract after the season's merciful close and bought in Kevin Willard, Rick Pitino's former associate head coach at Louisville.
But early on, it looked like Willard's rebuilding season would be as bad as Ruland's final season as the Gaels dropped their first six decisions, only one of which came against high-major competition (a 102-74 pounding at North Carolina). Four straight losses on the road were followed by a quick and humiliating trip to the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 23-24.
It took until after Thanksgiving weekend for the Gaels to finally get some home cooking, and Iona has made the most of it. A win over Delaware opened the home slate, followed by a 92-68 mauling of conference favorite Loyola (Md.) in the early MAAC opener. On Saturday, the Gaels moved to 5-7 after an impressive 67-62 home win over Western Michigan, a team that has already beaten Davidson and Southern Illinois.
"We didn't want to go down the same road as last year," senior forward Dexter Gray said of the poor start. "We want to grow and learn. Everyone's more together this season, nobody's blaming each other as much, and now all we want to do is show people we're a good team."
Of the eight players in Willard's regular rotation, six were on the Gaels' roster last season. That number includes Gray, the former St. John's player who sat out most of last season for academic reasons but has emerged as the team's leader in the locker room and on the scoring leaderboard (13.8 points per game). The athletic, 6-foot-7 forward has teamed with Gary Springer, a tough 6-9 glass-crasher who sat out last season due to injury, to combine for 13.5 rebounds per game. As a team, the frontcourt-rich Gaels are making 54.9 percent of their 2-point shots, the 24th-best mark in the country.
The backcourt is full of players who survived the 2-28 season and have come back better for the experience. Sophomore shooting guard Milan Prodanovic, who has an overseas-sounding name but hails from right down the expressway in the Bronx, has improved his shooting percentage and is second on the team with 12.3 points per game. Holdovers Kyle Camper and DeShaune Griffin, as well as freshman Rashon Dwight are solid contributors and recipients of big minutes thanks to Willard's "if you don't play D, you don't play" policy. If the Gaels can cut down on turnovers, they may end up finishing higher than their expected eighth-place pick in the conference's preseason coaches' poll.
But after the demoralizing season and offseason changes, you can't blame anybody for short-selling Iona.
"I wasn't here last year," Willard said. "I didn't watch any of the tape of those games, I didn't even know how they played. When I got here, I told the guys that our goal is to win the MAAC championship. ... Whether that's realistic or not, that's going to be our goal, how we prepare. And so far, they've done everything I've asked of them."
There are already reports that the Gaels are doing far more than asked. Late last week, given the option to take a day off, they all showed up for practice. That enthusiasm led to a win over Western Michigan marked with a suffocating first-half defense, successful rotation on WMU star big man Joe Reitz and enough guts to hold off the Broncos' late run. The Gaels' spirit impressed even the defeated opposition.
"It's a wonderful story," Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins said. "It's a great thing to see, watching guys buying into a new program so soon. We in the coaching business call it 'drinking the Kool-aid.' Those guys will do anything for their coach now. ... You can see the passion, the esprit d'corps on the floor and on that bench. It's a lot of fun to watch, especially when you're not playing them."
Iona will spend the last weekend of 2007 on its last nonconference road trip of the season -- a tough couple of games at Louisville (Willard's homecoming of sorts) and current 11-0 SEC squad Vanderbilt. No matter what happens during that trip, Iona is a team that has learned to win again, and that's positive experience that will serve them well when MAAC play begins again in January.