NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — As the college basketball regular season winds down, many of the power conference schools will be honoring their seniors in upcoming games. The MAAC has already wrapped up its regular season, with the conference tournament starting on Friday night (check back here for coverage). On Feb. 20th against William & Mary, the Iona Gaels men’s basketball team celebrated its Senior Night at the Hynes Athletics Center. For Iona, it was quality over quantity.
The Gaels only have three seniors—Milan Prodanovic, Jonathan Huffman, and David Nelson—but the trio has been a special part of a program that has come a long way in the past few years. Their college experiences, both at Iona and elsewhere, have all been very different from one another. One thing they share, however, is gratitude that they’re ending their college careers on such a successful note.
Nelson has had quite the unusual college athletic career. A native of Denver, the 6’8, 240 lb. Nelson was recruited to play football at Iona. The tight end chose Northern Iowa though, where he played for two years. He eventually found his way to New Rochelle after a transfer, but only got one season on the gridiron. The Iona football program was cancelled after the 2008 season.
“I came here to play football and when that fell through I didn’t want to leave Iona,” Nelson said after Friday’s 69-53 victory. “I really like Iona; the people here are great. So I decided to try walking on to the basketball team and I made it.”
Nelson had to sit out last year but became eligible for this season. Although he has only appeared in five games, he doesn’t regret his decision to stay at Iona and join the hoops team. “It’s a great thing to be a part of,” he said. “The team—they’re all such great guys. I love being around all of them…Ending (my college career) with a team like this is pretty cool.”
Huffman is no stranger to transferring either. The seven footer from Montgomery, Alabama enrolled at Louisville when Kevin Willard was an assistant there under Rick Pitino. When Willard got hired at Iona, Huffman followed. After sitting out a year, Huffman stepped in last season and played 20 minutes a game, averaging nearly seven points. This year he has been the most productive senior statistically, knocking down 40% of his three-pointers.
He poses a match-up problem for opposing teams because of his combination of height and shooting prowess. Many centers are not used to defending beyond the foul line, yet alone past the three-point line. On Friday, Huffman got the start and hit four-of-six shots, including three-of-four from downtown, for 12 points.
“Huff,” as his teammates and coaches call him, is quick to deflect any individual praise, preferring to talk about the chemistry of the team. “Everybody’s on the same page,” Huffman said. “That’s one thing about this year—the reason that we’re doing so well is that there are no outsiders.”
Rounding up the group of seniors is Prodanovic. He’s had a more standard college arc—no transfers, no football, just your typical four-year stint at one school…sort of. Prodanovic started more than 25 games each of his first three years at Iona. His freshman season was the infamous two-win campaign. The win total upped to 12 each of the next two seasons. On Senior Night, Iona picked up its 20th win. As the wins have increased, though, Prodanovic’s playing time has decreased. He got the start on Friday, but he’s only averaging 12.5 minutes per game.
The guard from Queens never complains though, at least not publicly. When he enters the game he plays hard on both ends and provides yet another outside shooting threat for this Iona team. He was in disbelief over how hard his teammates played for him and the other seniors on Friday. He also reflected on his college career, from the two-win season to the success of this year’s team.
“Life is about ups and downs and being able to overcome the downs,” Prodanovic said. “Dave Nelson told me, ‘It’s bittersweet.’ It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. I love college, I love being here at Iona…It’s sad that I’m leaving, but at the same time I’m happy that I was able to accomplish a lot of things throughout my career.”
The statistical stars of the game, sophomore Scott Machado and junior Alejo Rodriguez, who started at Iona the same year as Prodanovic but still has a year left due to a medical redshirt, both spoke about “playing for the seniors.” Willard called it one of the best wins since he’s been at Iona, though it wasn’t easy.
“Huffman and Milan have been terrific all year—not only on the basketball court but I think most importantly as leaders,” Willard said. “They’ve really helped the young kids develop all the way throughout the year. This has been a tough Senior Night for me…It’s tough to see them go. They’ve been such special kids to the program. It’s great to have those kids in the program.”
Huffman and Nelson say they do what they can to help out the underclassmen, but declined to identify themselves as the leaders of this young team. Prodanovic said the Gaels “have a bunch of leaders” and that “everybody brings something to the table,” giving the impression that he feels the same way as his fellow seniors. But as he continued to speak about his role on the team, it became clear he brings more than a little “something” to the table.
“What I wanted to make sure that the freshmen and the sophomores understood is that you have to work harder than everybody else,” he said. “You don’t want to finish off college, be a senior, and regret that you weren’t in the gym enough.
“Like Coach Willard always told me, ‘You’ve never arrived;’ you’ve never gotten there. You have to consistently be hungry and get after it even more. That’s the only way that you can be successful.”
Prodanovic would certainly know. He’s seen a whole lot in his four years with the Iona basketball program, but he can graduate knowing this: He left it in a lot better shape than it was when he arrived.