Last March, Iona College had a five-point halftime lead on Final Four-bound LSU before falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gaels were a senior-laden team so it was reasonable to expect a drop into the pack of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this year.
No one, however, expected a complete collapse.
Iona is 0-16 and hits town for its annual Western New York trip as the last winless Division I team in the nation. The Gaels play tonight in the Koessler Center against Canisius (7 p.m., Radio 710 AM) and Saturday afternoon at Niagara.
"When you go through everything, we've lost about seven guys and it's crazy at this level to try to recover from that," ninth-year coach Jeff Ruland said this week by phone. "Hey, I feel like I'm in that movie "Deep Water" and the bleeping boat left without me."
Before hosting Iona, Niagara (9-9, 4-3) has a huge game at 7 tonight against MAAC favorite and co-leader Marist (13-4, 5-1) in the Gallagher Center (Radio 1440 AM). Marist plays Canisius on Saturday.
The University at Buffalo (9-7, 1-2 Mid-American) is on the road tonight to play at Ohio (11-5, 2-1) in a 7 p.m. game (Radio 1520 AM).
Iona is the MAAC's flagship program, owning a conference-best six NCAA berths. But the Gaels are 0-6 in the MAAC this year, and the New York media, which usually gives the New Rochelle school sporadic coverage, is giving the streak big headlines. ESPN.com did a long feature last week, and Ruland's interview with The News was interrupted by a phone call from Sports Illustrated (he told SI he'd call back).
"I can do without all this," said Ruland, the 6-foot-11 former NBA All-Star who has led his alma mater to three NCAAs. "Last year, we were 7-0 and beat a Top 25 team on the road [Iowa State] and I didn't get all this attention."
Ruland's team is at or near the bottom of many NCAA statistical categories and has yet to score 70 points in regulation. Twelve of the 16 losses are by double digits.
Iona graduated 5,040 career points from last year's team, which featured one of the conference's all-time backcourt trios (2,000-point scorer Steve Burtt, Ricky Soliver and Marvin McCullough) and rugged forward Kiril Wachsmann.
Junior forward Gary Springer suffered a knee injury before this season started and hasn't played a minute. Ruland was enamored by junior college point guard Kyle Camper, but Camper broke his foot in practice Nov. 27 and played just three games. Returning seniors Anthony Bruin and Justin Marshall, career role players, have been forced to become mainstays with middling results.
There was more. St. John's transfer Dexter Gray, who sat out his transfer year and became eligible in December, played just four games (10.3 points) before running into academic troubles and is still out. Freshmen Mike Harris (knee) and Alejo Rodriguez (back) have battled injuries.
Even Ruland missed a game, a 22-point loss to Marist, when the school suspended him for getting two technicals in a Jan. 6 loss at Loyola.
"I'm the coach and it's up to me. And I've been through worse things before," said Ruland, who endured the death of his father when he was 9, the end of his NBA career due to injuries at age 28 and a divorce. "I can't sit around and feel sorry for myself or these guys."
Ruland has two more years on his contact, which pays in the $300,000 range. The buyout figure and his recent success make it unlikely his job is in jeopardy.
"The administration and alumni have been great, and you don't hear much from other people," he said with a laugh. "I guess the ones I pass in the street are afraid I'd kick their [butt] so they keep walking."
Canisius (7-10, 2-5) has to be careful tonight because the Gaels are getting much closer. They had a second-half lead before falling Friday to Manhattan, 73-63. On Sunday, they had an eight-point lead with 5 1/2 minutes left but lost in overtime to Fairfield, 83-76, to set a school record for consecutive losses.
Ruland is hopeful this year is simply a major blip on the radar. He'll have Springer and Camper back next season as well as a recruiting class that includes 6-foot-8 Moroccan transfer Younes Idrissi, who started 10 games last season at Georgia.
"Our guys have never stopped trying. We just have inexperience and we're missing key components," Ruland said. "It is what it is but I'll say this: Only one guy [La Salle's Speedy Morris] has won four titles in this league and he had five NBA players. I didn't get dumb overnight, and I truly believe we're going to win another championship here the next couple of years."