Iona hopes NCAA berth comes to pass

Scott Machado helped Iona rebound from a four-game skid with a four-game winning streak. Richard Mackson/US Presswire

NEW YORK -- A point guard who is leading the nation in assists, coupled with a big man who's averaging just under 20 points and just over 10 rebounds per game -- sounds like a pretty good combination, don't you think?

That's what the Iona Gaels have going for them, which could make them a dangerous team come March.

Iona (17-10, 11-5 MAAC) got uncharacteristic performances from Scott Machado and Mike Glover on Wednesday night, yet still managed to manhandle league rival Manhattan 102-65 at the Jaspers' Draddy Gymnasium.

Machado, who came in averaging a Division I-best 7.7 assists per game, had just four dimes in 26 minutes -- but he was the team's leading scorer on the night, draining six 3-pointers in eight attempts and finishing with 20 points.

Glover, who came in averaging 19.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had just nine and seven, respectively -- only the third time this season he's failed to reach double-figures in either category. But the Gaels didn't need to go inside often, connecting on 16 of their 27 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. Five different players buried at least two treys.

"I'm surrounded by a bunch of shooters on my team," Machado said. "And when you're the worst shooter on your team, and you're hitting shots like that, you feel good. The basket looks like an ocean."

Machado underestimated his abilities just a tad. The 6-foot-1 junior from Queens was named second-team All-Metro Atlantic a season ago, and is Iona's second-leading scorer this season, averaging 13.9 points per game. But he was shooting just 28.6 percent from 3-point range before Wednesday night.

"Scott's capable of shooting the ball better than he has during the year," first-year Iona coach Tim Cluess said. "Tonight was a great shooting night, and I'm not expecting 6-for-8 [all the time], but he is capable of doing more than what he has. He's been working on his shot a lot all year long. And when he's putting shots in, we have a lot of weapons."

Perhaps part of the reason Machado has not shot the ball better is he's been so focused on setting up his teammates.

Machado wasn't always an assist machine -- in fact, he has almost doubled his assist average from a season ago (3.9 apg). His new coach is a major reason why. Cluess, who took over at Iona in April after a successful stint at Division II C.W. Post, brought with him an up-tempo offense that relies heavily on a playmaking point guard.

Actually, Cluess had coached Machado as a high school freshman at St. Mary's in Manhasset, N.Y. (on Long Island). The coach thought Machado could develop into more of a setup man, especially after watching game film from last season. But even Cluess has been pleasantly surprised by Machado's success.

"No, I would never have imagined that he'd be averaging almost eight assists a game -- this quickly anyway," Cluess said.

Machado didn't exactly see this coming, either. "I've got a lot of talented players around me, so I mean, it was possible," he said. "But I didn't think it was going to happen. ... It is a nice feeling."

Cluess assured his new point guard that if he looked to distribute the ball first, opportunities would eventually develop for him to score as well.

"He wanted me to become more of a playmaker and just pass the ball more, as far as setting my teammates up," Machado said. "Once I spread the ball out and everybody else scored, then it would open up for me."

Sure enough, Machado's scoring average has increased this season, too, by more than a point per game.

"More than anything else, it's a mentality thing," Cluess said. "I think he's doing a really good job of working at that."

Iona has won four straight and is tied for second place in the MAAC with St. Peter's and Rider. Fairfield (21-5, 14-2) has already locked up the top seed in the conference tournament and will have the added advantage of hosting the tourney in Bridgeport, Conn., beginning on March 3.

The Gaels lost a tough battle to Fairfield, 75-71, in Bridgeport on Feb. 4. The teams will play again at Iona on Feb. 27, the final game of the regular season. And perhaps they'll play a third time on March 7, with an NCAA bid on the line.

"That looks like it's gonna be the [MAAC] championship game," Machado said, "but we can't look past nobody."

You can't blame the Gaels for feeling confident after a game like they had Wednesday night, which Cluess called his team's best performance of the season.

"As a coach, you're waiting for it to click," Cluess said. "Like, let's play the same way in a game that we do in practice at times, and really let people see what we can be like, when we have all the cylinders going.

"You maybe get four or five games a year as a team where you really click. We still feel like we have a few in the bag."