Madison Square Garden, NYC
6:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
To understand Iona basketball, you must first know a little something about "McNasty."
That'd be Gaels head coach Jeff Ruland. The gritty 6-11, 275-pounder earned the nickname during his decade in the NBA.
Ruland was a two-time all-American at Iona under Jim Valvano, leading the team to the program's first two NCAA tournament appearances. After being selected in the first round of the 1980 draft, Ruland's career including seasons in Washington (twice an all-star), Philadelphia, and Detroit. In 1995, he returned to New Rochelle, N.Y. as an assistant coach and then took over the head coaching reins in 1998.
Now entering his fifth season at Iona, Ruland is coming off a disappointing 2001-2002 in which the Gaels fell well short of their quest to win their third-straight conference tournament title.
The 2002-2003 campaign is off to a 4-4 start, with a three-game losing streak (Fairfield, Akron, Rhode Island) heading into Friday's game against UNC.
The Gaels had been one of the nation's top shooting teams (52 percent from the field and 41 percent from three) before Monday night's 71-68 home loss to Rhode Island in which they shot a woeful 34 percent from the field and 15 percent (3-20) from three.
The team's losing streak can partially be attributed to the absence of Greg Jenkins. The 6-9, 245-pound post player was preseason second team all-MEAC and averaging 13.4 points and 4.8 boards before being sidelined for all three losses with a "sublex" of his left shoulder. He will not dress against the Tar Heels.
Earning preseason first team all-conference honors was senior Courtney Fields, a rangy 6-9 senior forward who is second on the team in rebounds (6.0) and third in points (11.9), though he's only started one game this season.
But the biggest story for Iona in 2002-2003 has been the new faces.
First is 6-6 JuCo transfer Steve Smith, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, whose 15.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game has impressed Ruland.
"He just knows how to play," the coach said. "He's tough on the box, he can shoot from 18 feet, he plays great defense and he does all the little things."
Then there are the freshmen. Ruland brought in a four-man class, all of whom started against Rhode Island. Three of them are actually from the same Bronx high school.
Marvin McCullough quickly assumed starting point guard duties, and is handing out 4.0 assists per game while shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc. Ricky Soliver, a prolific scorer in the high school ranks, is a streaky shooting guard with good passing skills, though he has shot poorly in his three starts (8-30 FG, 3-18 3pt). He suffered a broken nose earlier this month and has been wearing a protective mask.
The other Bronx native, Steve Burtt Jr., has led the Gaels in scoring twice. The combo guard is the son of Iona's all-time leading scorer, an all-American in 1984. Freshman reserve Kiril Wachsmann rounds out Ruland's talented freshman class.
Also of note are senior captain Maceo Wofford and junior forward Charles Henson, who have started most of Iona's games this season. Wofford is a three-point ace (46 percent), while Henson is a pogo stick in the paint.
If the Tar Heels beat Iona, they'll face the winner of the St. John's/Manhattan matchup. The MSG Classic title game is Saturday at 5:30 pm. The consolation game is at 3:00 p.m.
Background Location: New Rochelle, N.Y. Enrollment: 2,980 Conference: MAAC Nickname: Gaels Colors: Maroon & Gold Head Coach: Jeff Ruland Record at IC: 75-57 Last year Record: 13-17 Conference record: 10-8, 5th Postseason: None Probable Starting Lineup: Marvin McCullough (6-0, G, Fr.) – 6.9 ppg, 3.8 apg Ricky Soliver (6-3, G, Fr.) – 8.9 ppg, 4.3 apg Steve Smith (6-6, F, Jr.) – 15.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg Charles Henson (6-9, F, Jr.) – 6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg *Greg Jenkins (6-9, F/C, Jr.) – 13.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.0 blk Key Reserves: Courtney Fields (6-9, F, Sr.) – 11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg Maceo Wofford (5-10, G, Sr.) – 8.5 ppg, 2.5 apg Steve Burtt Jr. (6-0, G, Fr.) – 7.6 ppg Kiril Wachsmann (6-7, F, Fr.) – 4.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg
Greg Jenkins ... Courtney Fields
Maceo Wofford ... Jeff Ruland
(Photos courtesy Iona, the AP and Allsport.)