College Basketball Nation: Iona Gaels
Winless Tulsa gave Creighton a scare. But overall, it certainly wasn’t the game’s sexiest Saturday. But there were a variety of under-the-radar and mid-major programs that offered some impressive individual efforts.
These are some of the players who usually go unnoticed for the majority of the year until March approaches and we’re all scrambling to find the next Butler or VCU. Well, remember these names. These athletes might be more relevant in the coming months.
2. Anthony Ireland (Loyola Marymount) -- The 2012-13 All-WCC first-teamer scored 25 points in a 76-70 win over Marist in the Paradise Jam. The senior also recorded 6 assists and 3 steals. And he made 10 of 11 free throws.
3. Jameel Warney (Stony Brook) -- The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward was in Beast Mode during Stony Brook’s 67-61 win over Florida Atlantic. He finished with 23 points and 19 rebounds in that game. He was crucial for the Seawolves, who were locked in a tied game early in the second half.
4. Langston Hall (Mercer) -- The 6-4 senior led Mercer to an 81-54 win over Yale. He connected on four of his seven 3-point attempts. He also registered 18 points, 10 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 steal.
5. Anthony Stitt (Charleston) -- The junior finished the Cougars’ lopsided 89-55 win over Furman with 4 steals. He also made 4 of 8 3-point attempts on his way to 21 points.
6. Chris Horton (Austin Peay) -- The sophomore big man is averaging 3.8 BPG. And he maintained that pace when he finished with four blocks in a 78-72 victory over Montana State. He also finished with 23 points and 9 rebounds.
7. Sean Armand (Iona) -- The 6-5 guard powered the Gaels in their 89-73 victory over Paul Hewitt’s program. Armand was 10-for-16 from the field in a 30-point performance. It was his season high in George Mason’s first blemish of the season.
8. Ray Lee (Eastern Michigan) -- What a performance by the freshman in his team’s fifth consecutive win. He scored 38 points, went 12-for-15 from the field and made all five 3-point attempts in Eastern Michigan’s 74-69 victory over Texas-Arlington. Another interesting note? His real name is Raven.
9. Shawn Long (Louisiana-Lafayette) -- Check out this stat line by the 6-9, 245-pounder: He finished with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks in the Ragin' Cajuns' 84-75 victory over Oakland. He also hit a 3-pointer.
10. Mark Henniger (Kent State) -- The 6-9 senior led the Golden Flashes to a 102-97 win over Niagara. He was perfect. He went 6-for-6 from the field (20 points) and 8-for-8 from the free throw line. Kent State should bronze his shoes.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Iona's transfers keep moving forward.
The 2011-12 preseason was one of the most exciting in Iona basketball history. Star point guard Scott Machado and NBA-prospect forward Mike Glover were both back, and sophomore Sean Armand would provide perimeter shooting from the wing. By any mid-major's standards, that would have been exciting enough. But there was more.
Just a few months after leading Arizona over No. 1-seeded Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16, Lamont "MoMo" Jones transferred out of Tucson and home to Iona, where he could, because of an ill grandmother, play right away. One of the best point guards in the nation, a bouncy forward, lights-out shooting and a volume-scoring backcourt star fresh off an Elite Eight? What more could a MAAC team ask for?
That Iona team was disappointing. The Gaels still won the MAAC, but lost to Purdue, Hofstra and Marshall in the nonconference, and fell to Fairfield in the MAAC tournament. They ended up needing a somewhat surprising nod from the selection committee to sneak in to the First Four in Dayton, where they lost to BYU. In 2012-13, with Machado and Glover gone, Jones and Armand ran Iona's combination of efficient offense and soft defense. It was good enough for a MAAC title and a No. 15 seed, but not enough to keep things close in the tournament against Ohio State. The Gaels finished 20-15.
In that context, the transition to 2013-14 could carry the stench of missed opportunity. Machado, who was the NCAA assists leader in his senior season, was a once-in-a-decade player in the MAAC. Glover was unnaturally athletic. Jones was a rare "down-transfer" in a world of players moving the opposite direction, and he was around for two years. When is Iona going to have talent like that again?
Not so long, it turns out. Iona coach Tim Cluess has done as well as any mid-major coach in the country at finding transfers -- specifically those from high-major schools -- in time to keep his program near the top of the MAAC, and this season will be no exception. Rutgers transfer Mike Poole will start immediately and should be an impact player, and former Iowa State point guard Tavon Sledge -- who received offers from St. John's, West Virginia and UTEP as a prep prospect -- will push the pace.
Will that be enough? The MAAC always offers solid basketball made more attractive by its entertainment value, and that's what the Gaels have done best in recent seasons. If they guard even marginally better than last season, and Armand and former juco transfer David Laury repeat last season's output, Iona is a favorite to attend three straight NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history. Who could be disappointed in that?
Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.
FLORIDA GULF COAST
Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.
Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.
Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.
LONG BEACH STATE
Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.
Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.
Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.
Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?
Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.
2. NC State has made it clear that coach Mark Gottfried hasn’t heard anything from UCLA. Athletic director Debbie Yow also is quick to remind everyone of the $3.75 million buyout in Gottfried’s contract, which she terms non-negotiable. Much as he got many in the Research Triangle to warm to NC State, Gottfried would fit at UCLA. But it would be too hard for UCLA to pry him out of Raleigh. Multiple sources continue to think the Bruins may have to go with an NBA coach. But there are other options out there -- Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, hasn’t been contacted; apparently neither has Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has recruited Los Angeles well. USC, meanwhile, might end up going with a quality coach, albeit not a huge name. Remember, Oregon didn’t get its first choice, but did land a big-time talent in Dana Altman. It can be done.
3. Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway has made it clear he wants a current head coach for its vacancy, according to sources, making it seem more realistic he would lean toward coaches like Iona’s Tim Cluess and/or Tom Moore of Quinnipiac. Quality openings like Old Dominion and Siena remain. Meanwhile, sources close to former UCLA coach Ben Howland anticipate he’ll sit out next season rather than take a job.
DAYTON, Ohio -- Quick reaction to No. 2 Ohio State's 95-70 blowout of No. 15 Iona:
Overview: Iona entered the tournament as an interesting potential upset candidate, a very efficient, up-tempo offensive group with an experienced scoring star in Arizona transfer Lamont "MoMo" Jones. If everything went well, maybe Iona would get hot from deep, maybe make the game a track meet, and maybe (just maybe!) catch the Buckeyes off guard.
Not so much. Instead, Aaron Craft and the same brutal Buckeyes defense that shut down some of nation's best in the final weeks of the Big Ten season did the same against the Gaels, opening up a 27-8 lead in the first 11 minutes of the game. To Iona's credit, the Gaels didn't go all the way away -- they closed the lead to just six in the final minutes of the first half, and had the margin down to just 10 at halftime. But Ohio State only racheted up the pressure in the second half, eventually extending its lead into unreachable territory and finishing with a 25-point win in its NCAA tournament opener.
Turning point: After Iona caught up with the Buckeyes in the final minutes of the first half, it looked as if the Gaels had recovered from their initial surprise at OSU's pressure and might be able to keep the pace the rest of the way. But Ohio State ripped off a 9-0 run to open the second half, building its lead back out to 52-33, and the game was never close again.
Key player: Deshaun Thomas was his typically brilliant offensive self, scoring 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. But the real difference-maker -- and what has given Ohio State its edge in recent weeks -- is the supporting scoring of Sam Thompson, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds and a rousing standing ovation from the collected Ohio State fans. Sometimes the secondary scoring comes from Craft, sometimes it comes from Thompson, but as long it is there, Ohio State has an excellent chance to advance deep into the field.
Key stat: Iona averaged 37.3 percent from 3 (and 45.7 percent inside the arc) this season, when they were one of the 20 most efficient offenses in the country. On Friday, Ohio State held the Gaels to just 6-of-28 from beyond the arc.
What's next: Ohio State (27-7) advances and will play the winner of No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Iowa State; Iona ends its season with a second consecutive tournament appearance and a 20-14 record.
Mike Muscala (Bucknell) -- The Muscala Monster is a dangerous creature. The Bison are capable of upsetting Butler in the second round Thursday in Lexington because they’re led by one of America’s most underrated stars. He scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a two-point loss to Missouri in January. Muscala (19.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG) dropped 18 points in a win against NCAA tourney participant La Salle in December. He’s finished with 25 points or more in 10 games. He also has the strength of 10 men. Not really, but he’s legit and more than prepared to help Bucknell ruin brackets worldwide.
Will Cherry (Montana) -- Damian Lillard is arguably the top player in the NBA’s rookie class. When he was a Big Sky star at Weber State, Cherry was his top adversary. The senior is known for his defensive prowess (1.9 SPG), but he’s a talented offensive player, too. Cherry is averaging 13.9 PPG for a Montana team that will face Syracuse in San Jose on Friday. The Grizzlies don’t have top scorer Mathias Ward, who is out for the season with a foot injury. But Cherry is a proven leader. He’s tough, too. He missed a few games in early March after aggravating a foot injury that cost him the first few months of the season. But he hasn’t shown any signs of regression since his return.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard) -- The West Region is probably the easiest region. With Gonzaga as the 1-seed, it just seems more wide open than the other three. So expect the unexpected. Harvard could spur some madness in its second-round matchup against New Mexico in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The Lobos are the better team. But the Crimson have overcome adversity to reach this point. Stars Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left the team prior to the season because of an academic scandal. Chambers (12.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 44 percent from the 3-point line), just a freshman, helped Tommy Amaker’s squad recover from those losses and earn another automatic berth with its second straight outright Ivy title.
Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) -- The senior was a member of the Australian national team in the London Olympics. He’s struggled in his past two games, but Dellavedova will be ready for the NCAA tourney. The Gaels will face Middle Tennessee in Dayton in the First Four on Tuesday night. If they get past the Blue Raiders, they’ll see Memphis in the next round. Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 38 percent from the 3-point line) is not just recognized as a mid-major star. He’s one of the best point guards in America, regardless of level. He’s talented and experienced. And he might help the Gaels nullify your bracket.
Jamal Olasewere (LIU Brooklyn) -- I don’t think we’ll see the first 16-over-1 upset. But if it is to happen, I pick the Blackbirds to pull off the feat. Why? Because Olasewere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is a tough matchup for any team in the country. The 6-foot-7 forward is active inside, and he’s efficient in transition. The Blackbirds must get through James Madison in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. If they do, they’ll see Indiana on Friday in Dayton. If something crazy happens, Olasewere will certainly be involved.
Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso) -- The 6-7 forward from Australia cracked ESPN's "SportsCenter" recently when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer knocked UW-Green Bay out of the Horizon League tournament. He’s one of the top mid-major players in the country. Broekhoff is averaging 15.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG for a Crusaders squad that will face Michigan State on Thursday in Auburn Hills. The atmosphere will favor the Spartans, but Valpo will be tough. The Crusaders are a versatile team with an offense that’s ranked 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. And Broekhoff is the key to that success.
Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- The Bluejays might be the most dangerous 7-seed in the field. They certainly hit a few bumps during Missouri Valley Conference play. Overall, however, they’ve been one of the top mid-major programs in the country. They have wins against Wisconsin, Arizona State, Akron and Cal. They lead the nation with a 50.8 percent clip from the field. Their defense is suspect (78th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). But McDermott, their leader, is a legit star. He’s averaging 23.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG. He could really go off in the Big Dance. First, he has to lead his team through a tough opening-round matchup against Cincinnati in Philly on Friday. Creighton is definitely a sleeper in the Midwest Region.
Ian Clark (Belmont) -- On paper, there’s a lot to like about Belmont. The Bruins are a strong squad that’s faced some of the best teams in the country in nonconference matchups. Belmont can beat Arizona in the second round Thursday in Salt Lake City. And a Sweet 16 run isn’t a crazy concept for this veteran squad. Clark (18.1 PPG, 46.3 percent from beyond the arc) is just one of the weapons that the Wildcats will have to neutralize when the two teams meet. He’s a stud who could really disrupt brackets throughout the country.
If you tuned in to the game, you were witness to a true sartorial treat; if you didn't, you missed out. Iona's coaches, including head coach Tim Cluess, coached the entire game in ... sweatsuits. Minus the Iona lettering and the branding, they're the kind of gear only kids under the age of 10, adults over the age of 65, or supporting Sopranos characters can get away with -- after all, even Bob Huggins has the good sense to put on a pair of pants. So hey! Coach Cluess? What gives?
Jeff Eisenberg explains:
Tim Cluess and his assistants went with a casual look because it has become a good luck charm.
When the Iona staff first unveiled the jumpsuits on March 1 to raise awareness for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Gaels emerged from a stretch of six losses in seven games by toppling then-first place Loyola (Md.) 90-86. The coaches were mingling with fans at a reception after the game when Iona president Joseph E. Nyre and athletic director Eugene Marshall congratulated them on the win and said, "Guess we're going to continue wearing sweatsuits, right?"
"We were thrilled because we'd rather coach in them anyway," Iona assistant Jared Grasso said. "Our senior night, we beat Siena and they became a superstitious thing for our staff. The whole athletic department, our alums and our boosters have bought in. At this point, I don't think they'll let us wear anything else."
If the unofficial motto of college basketball is "hey, whatever works" then this is its most shining recent example. Since Cluess and his assistants donned their finest Bingo Wednesdays wear, Iona is 5-0, including its final two regular-season games and the three in the MAAC tourney, which earned them that automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Fans have picked up on the trend, wearing similar suits to games, and even two weeks later the whole thing is still raising awareness for cystic fibrosis research, as worthy a cause as there is.
Oh, and it's about to raise a lot more awareness. Grasso told Eisenberg the suits are "staying on until we lose," which means you are now officially prepared to see the most casual, laid back, ready-for-their-morning-power-walk coaching staff in the history of the NCAA tournament. Fresh.
2. The Pac-12 is hoping that moving the conference tournament to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand will ensure a packed atmosphere instead of the fickle situation at Staples Center in the past. The Pac-12 has no excuses if it doesn’t happen at the MGM. The WCC has been able to sell out and rock the Orleans Arena and they're locked into the site for the next three years. If the WCC can produce a tremendous crowd -- even with fan bases dwarfed by the Pac-12 -- then surely the Pac-12 should be able to come through with a more than respectable showing later this week in Las Vegas.
3. Tim Cluess’ success at Iona should send a strong message to athletic directors across the country. Fit is always better than just name recognition. Cluess has now taken the Gaels to two-straight NCAA tournaments -- one as an at-large and another as an automatic qualifier. Cluess was plucked from relatively unknown C.W. Post before landing at Iona. Ray Harper must also get his due for what he has done at Western Kentucky. I was critical of firing Ken McDonald in January of 2012, more so for doing it at that time of the year. But Harper has been the answer, leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA tournament now in two-straight seasons; winning the Sun Belt in consecutive years.
The 11th and final BracketBusters event began Friday night and continues over the weekend all around the country. Here's my take (along with some predictions) on what I think are the seven best matchups:
Iona at Indiana State, 11 a.m. ET, ESPNU: Remember when Indiana State was the sexy bubble team? That's no longer the case. ISU has lost three in a row and four of its last six. The Sycamores are in a can't-lose situation in this matchup with Iona. They have wins over Miami, Ole Miss and Wichita State, which helps. But they also have losses to the four teams in the bottom of the conference (Bradley, Drake, Missouri State and Southern Illinois). Figure that one out. Iona boasts one of the nation's most potent offenses (19th in adjusted offensive efficiency) but has lost five of six. Few teams have caught as many bad breaks as Iona. Three of those losses were sealed after regulation (one in overtime, two in double-overtime). The other two defeats were by three points or fewer. Iona is one or two stops away from being the MAAC's best team.
Prediction: Iona 76, Indiana State 74
Montana at Davidson, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Montana had won 14 consecutive games prior to a 24-point loss at Weber State on Valentine’s Day. Turnovers (14) were an issue in that game, and they’ve been a problem for the program all year (turnovers on 19.1 percent of their possessions, 117th in the nation per KenPom). In the Southern Conference, Davidson has held opponents to 58.5 PPG. The Wildcats took some blows in the nonconference slate, but they’ve won 11 in a row, and Jake Cohen (14.6 PPG) and De'Mon Brooks (13.1 PPG) comprise one of the most talented duos in the mid-major ranks. Both squads will be equipped to seal a tight game at the charity stripe. Montana (76.3 percent) and Davidson (81.3 percent, first in the nation) are top-10 nationally from the free throw line.
Prediction: Davidson 73, Montana 69
Detroit at Wichita State, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Titans have soared toward the top of the Horizon League with an offense that's averaging 79 PPG, sixth in the nation. They're 20th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, as Ray McCallum Jr. (18.7 PPG) leads a unit that possesses high-major athleticism at every position. But they'll have to decipher a Shockers squad that's found its groove again after a rocky three-game losing stretch that threatened its position in the Missouri Valley Conference. Gregg Marshall's team is back on top of the league with a feisty defense that's allowed only 59.7 PPG in MVC play (second in the conference). Six-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early is a matchup dilemma due to his versatility (6-for-12 from the 3-point line in his last two games) and fellow 6-8 forward Carl Hall uses his brawn inside to make an impact. This is a matchup between a fluid offense and a stingy defense. Something has to give.
Prediction: Detroit 73, Wichita State 71
Creighton at Saint Mary’s, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN: Doug McDermott (22.5 PPG) is still one of the best players in the country, but the buzz surrounding the preseason All-American is not as high as it was even a month ago due to the Bluejays' recent struggles. They're still 47th in the RPI and they have top-100 RPI wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State, Indiana State and Cal. They're in a much safer spot than a Saint Mary's team that's banking on RPI alone (51) after failing to earn any meaningful nonconference wins. The Gaels will face BYU before this matchup against the Bluejays, but a win over the Cougars wouldn't carry the same weight as a victory over Creighton. McDermott and Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova are two of the most exciting players in the country, and this game means plenty to both squads. You don't want to miss it.
Prediction: Creighton 75, Saint Mary’s 70
South Dakota State at Murray State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2: South Dakota State struggled in its first three Summit League games. The team lost two of those matchups after a brutal nonconference travel stretch that seemed to tire the Jackrabbits. But they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games. Still, much like Murray State, their only ticket to the Big Dance is through the conference tournament. Can the Jackrabbits get there, however, through Nate Wolters (22.8 PPG) and the powerful offense he pilots (32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency)? Or will their defense cost them down the stretch (213th in adjusted defensive efficiency)? Murray State has been up and down all season. The Racers beat Belmont, one of the best mid-majors in the country. But they’ve lost two of their last three games. Isaiah Canaan (20.6 PPG) is a very talented player but he needs help (the Racers are shooting 31.4 percent on 3s, 11th in the conference). It’s tough to predict this matchup because both squads have been so unpredictable. But South Dakota State has overcome better teams on the road (namely New Mexico).
Prediction: SDSU 80, Murray State 74
Ohio at Belmont, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2: For a time this season, Belmont was certainly one of the best mid-major teams in the country. But a 2-2 record during a four-game road stretch has humbled the Bruins. They're the OVC's top scoring offense and defense, but they're committing turnovers on 19.9 percent of their possessions, 157th in the country per Ken Pomeroy. They'll face a team that can keep up with them on offense (Ohio averages a MAC-best 74.4 PPG). Belmont is likely still a bubble team with that high RPI (30), but the Bruins certainly haven't played like an NCAA tourney team in recent weeks. Both teams probably need conference tournament titles to guarantee slots. Yet they're also aware of the value of late-season momentum as they prepare for those league tourneys. A victory in this game would help achieve that. This contest also features a must-see guard matchup: Belmont's Ian Clark (18.9 PPG) versus Ohio's D.J. Cooper (13.6 PPG, 7.7 APG, 2.1 SPG). That alone is worth staying up late for.
Prediction: Ohio 79, Belmont 69
Akron possesses the nation's top winning streak at 17 in a row. That run has placed the Zips on the soft NCAA tournament bubble. Zeke Marshall, who is fifth in the nation with 3.48 blocks per game, leads a group that's ranked 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. North Dakota State was rising in the Summit League before Taylor Braun, their leading scorer at 15.2 PPG, suffered a foot injury last month. The Bison have lost four of their last eight games and are third in the league. The good news is that Braun will probably return soon. The bad news is that he'll probably miss the trip to Akron.
Prediction: Akron 76, NDSU 65
2. NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski was candid on "Katz Korner" on Tuesday about what to do with teams that have top-10 victories but not as much to show for it the rest of the season. Maybe that's why Lunardi had Illinois and Villanova in his first four out in the latest projections. If you didn't know anything else and heard that Illinois had won at Gonzaga, beaten Butler in Maui and Ohio State at home, you would think the Illini were a lock with those three wins. But the Illini have only two Big Ten wins, making it hard for them to get a tourney nod on body of work. Meanwhile, Nova beat top-five teams Syracuse and Louisville in the same week in Philadelphia ... but also got crushed by Columbia and swept by Providence. Bobinski said these types of discussions about teams like this will be interesting. He also said seeding will be tougher than selections this year.
3. Indiana State coach Greg Lansing was rightfully upset that the Sycamores drew Iona at home for BracketBusters on Feb. 23 instead of getting a team that is more of a lock to be on the bubble or in the NCAA field. But Lansing said he had to focus on winning the Missouri Valley Conference. So, all Indiana State did Wednesday was beat Creighton. Now, with victories over Creighton and at Wichita State and neutral-site wins over Ole Miss and Miami in Honolulu, the Sycamores have a better profile than the Shockers and most other bubble teams. Indiana State's split with the Bluejays and the possibility of a sweep of the Shockers also keeps Indiana State (a game behind Creighton) in the hunt to win the Valley title.
Friday, Feb. 22
North Dakota State at Akron, ESPN2, 7 ET
Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State, ESPNU, 9 ET
Saturday, Feb. 23
Iona at Indiana State, ESPNU, 11 a.m. ET
Eastern Kentucky at Valparaiso, ESPNU, 1 ET
Canisius at Vermont, ESPN3, 1 ET
Pacific at Western Michigan, ESPN3, 2 ET
Montana at Davidson, ESPNU, 3 ET
Northwestern State at Niagara, ESPN3, 3 ET
Detroit at Wichita State, ESPN/2, 4 ET
Creighton at Saint Mary's, ESPN/2, 6 ET
South Dakota State at Murray State, ESPN2, 8 ET
Denver at Northern Iowa, ESPN3, 8 ET
Ohio at Belmont, ESPN2, 10 ET
The matchups for the BracketBusters games not on television can be found here.
Even so, there are a few teams and players worth keeping an eye on.
The basics: Nov. 16–19 at University of the Virgin Islands
The set matchups: Mercer vs. George Mason, 1:30 p.m. ET; Illinois-Chicago vs. New Mexico, 4 p.m. ET; Wake Forest vs. Connecticut, 6:30 p.m. ET; Quinnipiac vs. Iona, 9 p.m. ET
The favorite: Connecticut. New Mexico isn’t far off -- the Lobos are still criminally underrated in the 2012-13 Mountain West conversation -- but it’s hard to look at what UConn did to Michigan State and not be impressed (particularly because the Spartans took down Kansas four days and a 4,500-mile trip from Germany to Atlanta later). The Huskies’ backcourt -- Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun and lengthy wing DeAndre Daniels -- appear to be playing fast, scrappy, motivated basketball under hungry young coach Kevin Ollie. And they have a straightforward route to the tournament title game.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier struggled with leadership issues throughout the Huskies’ lackluster 2011-12 season; he fully admitted other players simply didn’t want to hear it. But Napier is now a legit veteran presence with a national title on his résumé, and this greenhorn UConn team revolves much more around his perimeter abilities.
Tony Snell, New Mexico: The Lobos have a really good chance to win this tournament -- if UConn is the favorite, it’s not by that much -- and Snell is a major reason why. He led New Mexico’s 86–81 comeback win over Davidson Tuesday morning with 25 points, including a final-minute shot-clock-beating 3 to help seal the deal.
MoMo Jones, Iona: Iona lost national assists leader Scott Machado and senior forward Mike Glover. It will gain former Iowa State point guard Tavon Sledge and former Toledo forward Curtis Dennis. But Jones -- the former Arizona point who transferred to Iona last summer -- should get the touches to have a very big season, even if he isn’t always the most efficient scorer in the country.
C.J. Harris, Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons still have a big talent hole to climb out of before they get competitive in the ACC again, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook Harris. The guard had a breakout junior season, shooting 50.7 percent from 2, 42.2 percent from 3 and 84.4 percent from the line while lowering his turnover rate and drawing shooting fouls frequently.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Is this Connecticut thing real?
As good as UConn looked Friday night -- and it did look good -- it’s important to temper this kind of exuberance this early in the season. It was only one game (in Germany, no less) and Michigan State hardly had its finest outing. A convincing jaunt this weekend will hardly guarantee Big East title contention, but it will be another green shoot.
Where is George Mason right now?
Paul Hewitt enters his second season at George Mason with the program arguably as bereft of talent as at any point in the past five seasons. That’s what happens when you lose two leading frontcourt scorers, Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison (and your program’s best recent scorer, Luke Hancock, is preparing to debut for Louisville). Mason looks likely to slide this season, but did open with a win over Virginia. This tournament will tell us more.
Is New Mexico good enough down low?
The Lobos have plenty of perimeter talent. Kendall Williams and Snell are gifted scorers, Hugh Greenwood is a crafty point, Demetrius Walker is finally getting it, and Jamal Fenton can really go. But after losing Drew Gordon to the draft, can New Mexico find and develop some interior presence in time to compete with UNLV and San Diego State?
Is Wake on its way?
There’s no two ways about it: Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure has been a disaster thus far, and that’s before you consider the comparatively gleaming record of the man (Dino Gaudio) he replaced. But Bzdelik did improve Wake to a 13-win outfit last season after losing two starters from an 8–24 team, and Harris and Travis McKie form a really nice scoring combo. The Demon Deacons aren’t going to challenge for the ACC title anytime soon, but there’s at least a chance they won’t be horrible. So there’s that.
Will ESPN.com college football editor Brian Kelly shave his head if his alma mater, Quinnipiac, wins this tournament?
I don’t know, but I triple dog dare him.
First round: Iona over Quinnipiac (sorry BK); UConn over Wake; New Mexico over UIC; George Mason over Mercer.
Semifinals: UConn over Iona; New Mexico over George Mason.
Championship: UConn over New Mexico.
2. Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney can't be too disappointed. He was a long shot to be selected. He has had one of the most bizarre and most discussed careers I have seen in covering the sport for 22 years. Hopefully he will find his way. The Bulldogs' Dee Bost, who didn't get picked either, once famously declared for the draft then returned to school in 2011 after claiming he didn't know the rules.
3. The Big East fully expects Boise State to be a football member and is doing all it can to help the Broncos get the rest of their sports into the Big West, even making a financial commitment. San Diego State spent Thursday lobbying other Big West members to help get the Broncos into the league. Boise State has until Saturday to withdraw from the Mountain West for 2013 or face further penalty. The Big West has to simply make a decision. The basketball conference will be much improved by adding Boise State with SDSU and Hawaii -- three programs that care deeply about their sports.