Iona out to prove it belongs
Surprise at-large nod got Gaels dancing, but team is hungry to stick around
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- The Iona Gaels were happy to go back to work Monday morning.
Less than 16 hours after the stunning revelation that they had made the NCAA tournament, the Iona players and coaching staff were on the floor at the Hynes Center, prepping for Tuesday night's first-round game versus Brigham Young.
Junior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones said he didn't even sleep Sunday night. "I'm exhausted," Jones said. "But I'll be ready to go tomorrow."
The players and coaches -- who watched the selection show in different locations -- reunited quickly back on campus Sunday night after getting the news they'd been hoping and praying for. "After we had our 15 minutes with the guys, then as a coaching staff we got down to business right away," head coach Tim Cluess said. "Our players we let be happy a little while longer."
The coaches worked deep into the night, studying up on BYU, a team Iona has never faced. "I'm not worried about sleep," Cluess said. "There's another time for that. You know what? You sleep when you die."Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireFormer Arizona guard Lamont Jones will bring his tournament experience to the Iona backcourt.
Then they began implementing the game plan during a full 90-minute practice Monday morning, which wrapped up at 11 a.m.
The players said they have been bombarded with phone calls, text messages and e-mails in the hours since "Iona" popped on everyone's televisions screens Sunday night.
"After this I will be turning my phone off," senior forward Mike Glover said. "We're not gonna take this trip lightly. It's all business."
The players admitted that they know little about BYU. "I know that Jimmer Fredette went there," senior guard Scott Machado said. Others echoed that sentiment.
But Fredette has moved on to the NBA after his wonderful career with the Cougars ended last season. This season, BYU (25-8, 12-4 WCC), which finished third in the West Coast Conference behind St. Mary's and Gonzaga, is led by a pair of big men: 6-foot-8 senior Noah Hartsock (16.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and 6-foot-9 junior Brandon Davies (15.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg), both of whom shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
BYU has two other players who average in double figures -- 6-foot-2 freshman point guard Matt Carlino (12.7 ppg, 4.7 apg), a transfer from UCLA, and 6-foot-5 senior swingman Charles Abouo (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
"I know they have a very good inside-outside tandem," Cluess said. "They have two big guys inside -- one can knock down 3s as well as post up [Hartsock]. They run the ball well. They run very good motion sets. They do a little pick-and-roll with their point guard.
"We know we have our hands full, and we know it's gonna be a very challenging game, but hopefully we're up for the challenge."
BYU likes to get up and down -- the Cougars are 13th in the country in scoring (78.2 ppg) and sixth in assists (17.0 ppg). But Iona has them beat in both categories. In fact, the Gaels lead the nation in points (83.3) and assists (19.3) per game.
One thing's for sure -- this will be an entertaining game to watch.
"I feel like we have all the right pieces, and the way we play is perfect for this tournament," Machado said. "The way we shoot the ball, and the way we have an inside presence, I just feel like we're good to go."
Iona needs its three stars to come up big in this game, as usual. Machado (13.6 ppg, 9.9 apg) is the leading assist man in the country, and one of 16 finalists for the Wooden Award. Glover (18.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg) shoots 64.4 percent from the field, but must make his free throws -- he shot just 9-for-18 from the foul line in the Gaels' MAAC semifinal loss to Fairfield.
And Jones, who was part of Arizona's run to the Elite Eight in last year's tournament before transferring, gives Iona 16 points per game and some much-need NCAA tournament experience.
BYU has now made the Big Dance six years in a row. Iona hasn't been there since 2006.
"It's the best opportunity a 21-year-old kid can ever get," Jones said. "To get there again, to be on that stage again, it's a fun place to be at a fun time of year."
The Gaels had little time to waste Monday. Thirty minutes after practice ended, they boarded buses to the airport for their charter flight to Dayton. Once they touched down in Ohio, there were more media obligations, followed by a 40-minute practice session at UD Arena on Monday evening.
Then on Tuesday at approximately 9:10 p.m. ET, the ball goes up, and either Iona or BYU will advance to take on Marquette on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
The Gaels are well aware that many people don't think they deserve to have this opportunity. But they feel they belong.
"I think we're really gonna prove to the country the reason why the committee came together and put us in this tournament," Glover said.
"We're gonna play our hearts out, and we'll get as far as Iona wants to get," Jones said. "If that's to the championship game, if that's to the Sweet 16, then so be it."
From a first-round game to the championship game? Well, VCU almost pulled that off last year.
There's a reason they call it March Madness. And Iona will be smack in the middle of it come Tuesday.
- Leaning In
- Phil Jackson is leaning toward taking a front-office job with the Knicks.
- Rock And Roll
- The Knicks got the win over the lowly Cavaliers in Cleveland.
- Manny Happy Returns
- After nearly two years, Manny Banuelos took the mound for the Yankees.
- Thor Is Mortal
- Noah Syndergaard wasn't as sharp in his second outing of the spring.
- Still A Chance To Dance
- The Johnnies beat Marquette in double OT, keeping their NCAA tourney hopes alive.
- Nike Men's BYU Cougars Blue Basketball Practice Performance T-Shirt
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES