The expectations on Jeff Ruland going into his first season as Iona's head coach were not unlike the ones he faced nearly 20 years ago as the team's star player.
In other words, they were as enormous as 6-foot-11 Ruland himself.
``It's a little tougher [as a coach], because no matter how well we practice or how focused we are, it's out of your hands when the team's on the court,'' Ruland said last week.
It's been a difficult start for Ruland, the former All-American and NBA All-Star who took over after three seasons as an assistant when Tim Welsh left last spring for Providence.
The Gaels have lost six of their last seven games and are 4-7 going into tomorrow's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opener at home against Loyola.
Many had picked Iona to win the MAAC after winning the league's regular-season title last season and returning three starters, including MAAC Player of the Year Kashif Hameed.
``The biggest difference right now is that we lost our starting backcourt [from last season],'' said Ruland.
Ruland's return to Iona didn't spark quite the same burst of energy as Clyde Drexler's homecoming did at Houston, but the 38-year-old coach has the same visions for his alma mater that he did when he went there out of Sachem, N.Y., as a much sought-after high school star.
In his three seasons, Ruland led the Gaels to two NCAA appearances. He left after his junior year amid controversy sparked by the disclosure that he had signed with an agent the previous summer.
Ruland blamed his problems on Jim Valvano, who was about to leave Iona for North Carolina State. Despite tries from mutual friends to heal the wounds, their relationship remained icy right through Valvano's death from cancer in spring 1993.
``I carried a lot of bitterness for a long time,'' said Ruland. ``But I made my peace with Pam [Valvano's widow] at the Jimmy V Foundation dinner last week. I should have tried to patch things up a lot earlier.''
Ruland also left school 70 credits short of his degree, which he earned over the past two years while commuting from his South Jersey home and staying at his mother-in-law's house not far from the New Rochelle, N.Y., campus.
``I made some mistakes that I rectified,'' said Ruland, who left as the school's second-leading rebounder (1,067) and third-leading scorer (1,855). ``I don't believe in that role-model thing, but if I can save some guys from making the same mistakes, then I guess I've made an impact.''
One thing Ruland would like to see is Iona's return to the prominence it had back when he was a player, including a victory over soon-to-be-national champion Louisville at Madison Square Garden in 1980.
The Gaels were back at the Garden last week, but lost to Penn and Georgia Tech in the ECAC Holiday Festival. Ruland has already signed Courtney Fields, a 6-8 point guard from the Bronx, N.Y., who is rated among the top 40 players in the country. Kareem Shabazz, who recently left Florida State, visited Iona last week.
Asked to compare the job Drexler has ahead of him at Houston to his, Ruland said: ``He's got a lot more resources. But the bottom line is that if we're in the tournament at the end of his year, I'll think of it as a successful season.''
Odom the key
How crucial is Lamar Odom to Rhode Island's success this season? In his team's seven wins, the 6-foot-9 sophomore shot 53 percent from the field while averaging 16.8 points. In its six defeats, Odom's numbers dropped to 12.6 points on 39 percent shooting.
Tomorrow's St. John's-Rutgers game is the biggest between the schools since they met in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1982-83. The Red Storm is 10-2, 2-0 in the Big East. St. John's hasn't started 3-0 in the league since 1984-85, the last time it made the Final Four. Rutgers is 9-3, 2-1.
SMU's loss to Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the Fiesta Bowl Classic was the first for a Western Athletic Conference team to a non-Division I team in two years. The Mustangs, who were picked to finish in the upper half of the league's strong Mountain Division, followed it up with a loss to Navy in the consolation game to fall to 3-7.
Pub Date: 1/01/99