“I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” he said.
Itinerant student-athletes have played an increasingly important role for Cluess, 59. Jordan Washington, Jon Severe and Sam Cassell Jr., last season’s top three scorers, also were transfers.
This year, Griffin, a 6-7 junior, produced a career-high 29 points with four blocked shots in the conference final. He said differences with his coaches prompted him to leave Illinois State after his freshman season, and he spent last season at Midland College, a community college in Texas, sorting out his next move. Edogi, a 6-8 forward, averaged a team-high 7.1 rebounds this season.
Cluess, a former forward, knows personally how beneficial a midcollege change can be; he spent three years at St. John’s before finishing his college career for Hofstra. But his thinking on transfers is also professional: Cluess said he believed that midmajor programs could no longer flourish if they focused their recruiting exclusively on high school talent.
“At our level, we’re not going to get those guys we’re playing against this week,” he said, referring to Duke’s roster of top-tier recruits. “So if we’re just going to go for only high school kids, we’re going to probably play for that one year every four years and hope that no one gets hurt, nobody transfers and everything breaks right. Otherwise, you find yourself in a cycle of six, seven, eight years not being good. That doesn’t work for me or the school.”
Cluess added: “I kind of laugh because the last few years teams were really senior-laden in our league and built for that one special year. They didn’t win.”
Cluess’s formula is not easy to implement, and egos and chemistry often mean it might not work for others. But he seems to have made it work at Iona.
He ensured some stability by recruiting Rickey McGill as a freshman to be his point guard. But McGill, now a junior, noted the difficulty of meshing with veterans unfamiliar with the system. “Every year, I have to adjust to new people,” he said. “It’s kind of hard, but I get over it.”
Iona started this season 1-4, with losses at Albany and Syracuse and two more at a tournament in the Bahamas. Lewis said he initially struggled to determine how he fit in. “We have so many guys who can score,” he said. “You don’t know when it’s your time.”
A five-game winning streak to start January steadied the team, and despite an 11-7 conference record, the Gaels swept through the MAAC tournament to claim the league’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Now Lewis and his teammates have an opportunity to try to follow the lead of Washington, Severe and Cassell Jr. They are among a number of recent Iona standouts who played professionally overseas after leaving New Rochelle.
“It’s easy to sell it because guys can see results,” said Jared Grasso, Cluess’s associate head coach and lead recruiter. He said he had been contacted by 50 prospective transfers looking to attend Iona.
Iona is not merely a collection point, however. Grasso said he and others explored the backgrounds of all potential transfers. Those who are admitted are closely monitored. Coaches check players’ class attendance daily; tutoring is available.
The biggest on-court test arrives on Thursday. Iona endured double-digit losses to Iowa State and Oregon in its last two N.C.A.A. appearances. The Gaels know the outcome may not be pretty against Duke, either, but it is the shot many of them sought.
“If you don’t have a dream,” Lewis said, “what do you have?”