The Iona Gaels are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row after capturing the MAAC championship, and the fourth time in Tim Cluess’s seven years as head coach. The Gaels are the 14 seed in the Midwest region and will play 3 seed Oregon in Sacramento.
What you should know about Iona:
- The Gaels got here by winning the MAAC tournament as the three seed, knocking off host team Siena in OT in the title game. While Iona has been a MAAC powerhouse under Cluess, it’s the second year in a row they won the tournament, despite being a somewhat heavy underdog to favorite Monmouth going into the tournament.
- Iona was a 13 seed in last year’s tournament, losing to 4 seed Iowa State in Denver. Current Gaels who played in that game: Jordan Washington, Deyshonee Much, Rickey McGill, and Taylor Bessick.
- Iona finished 12-8 in MAAC play, and Cluess was swept by a MAAC opponent for the first time in his tenure in New Rochelle, losing twice to Monmouth. The highlight of Iona’s non conference season was winning the Great Alaska Shootout where they defeated Mountain West champion Nevada in the title game.
- The Gaels are led by 6’8 senior Jordan Washington, an efficient “one” in an often “four out one in” offense. Per KenPom, Washington had the second highest usage rate in the country, and drew fouls at the second highest rate. Washington really benefits from being surrounded by a bevy of shooters like Jon Severe, Deyshonee Much, EJ Crawford, Schadrac Casimir, and slashers like point guard Rickey McGill. The offensive talent around Washington makes it hard for opposing defenses to choose to double team him or sag down when he gets the ball in the paint.
- Offensively, the Gaels get up and down and love to spread the floor quickly in transition, a hallmark of Cluess teams (actually this was the “slowest” of Cluess’ Iona teams, but only by a possession or two). Per KenPom, the Gaels were once again the league’s most efficient offense, and hit the three at a phenomenal 42% in league play. Few mid-majors have a “brand” as distinct as the Cluess era Gaels.
- Defensively, the Gaels don’t do anything particularly noteworthy. They tend to not foul frequently, which is more of a result of lack of aggression than any sort of scheme byproduct.
Can the Gaels pull off the upset over 3 seed Oregon?
All things considered, this isn’t as terrible a situation for the Gaels as it seems on paper. Flying across the country to Sacramento isn’t ideal, but the Gaels prepped themselves for this sort of travel with the trip to Alaska, and they flew out to Reno to play Nevada before that. Unlike most east coast mid-major teams, Iona has been west of the Mississippi this year.
On top of that, they’re catching Oregon as the Ducks try to recover and reset following the devastating loss of big man Chris Boucher. Boucher is an athletic 6’10 human pogo stick that could swat shots on the back end of the zone press, fly up the court in Dana Altman’s trapping schemes, and go outside and shoot the three on offense. With Iona being just the second team Oregon will have played without Boucher (he did miss two non conference games in December too), the Gaels could be the beneficiary of some early Duck wonkiness in Sacramento.
Scheme wise, the onus for an Iona upset is going to fall on point guard McGill. Altman is a defensive genius, and his forte is mixing defensive schemes from possession to possession. His defense utilizes a zone press that makes you chew clock just trying to get the ball up the floor. In the half court, Altman will switch between a tricky matchup zone and man-to-man in the span of a possession. Reading and recognizing all that trickery falls on the point guard. If McGill is efficient in attacking the different looks he’ll see, there will be open shots on the perimeter for Iona, and the Gaels can cause some mismatches on the perimeter within their quick strike, spread pick and roll offense.
That’s key because even without Boucher, Oregon has two shot blockers in Jordan Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams that can make life difficult for Washington. A concerning stat (per hoop-math.com) for Iona in their bid for an upset: Oregon allowed transition attempts at the 34th lowest rate in the country. Not great for the Gaels, who were 32nd nationally in transition field goal attempt rate.
Offensively for the Ducks, it’s all about Dillon Brooks, one of the best overall players in the country. Essentially, Oregon’s motion offense is predicated on how defenses react to what Brooks is doing. He’s adept at getting into the lane off the dribble and drawing contact and he’s an excellent passer when teams over help on penetration. To top it off, he’s also an outstanding perimeter shooter. Basically Iona doesn’t have anyone who can guard him, but it will be on Much and Crawford to slow him down. That said, Iona’s key players have been here before. It’s highly unlikely the Gaels will come out nervous or fold in Sacramento.