Tim Cluess and Iona are usually near the top of the MAAC, but the Gaels overcame a down year in the regular season to roll to the conference title. For those who aren’t as familiar with the school from New Rochelle, here’s what you need to know.
How they got here
After starting 6-1, Iona went 11-7 in conference and looked to be in trouble after finishing as the No. 4 seed in the MAAC Tournament. Unfortunately for the rest of the MAAC, Iona got hot in the conference tournament for the third straight year and reeled off three solid wins that earned Cluess his fifth NCAA Tournament appearance at Iona.
Iona was the second-best team in the MAAC according to both KenPom and Bart Torvik’s efficiency rankings, but it’s pretty clear that the Gaels had the most potential heading into the season.
Players to know
Iona has had some turnover from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, but its core of E.J. Crawford, Rickey McGill and Schadrac Casimir all came back for 2017-18. But despite the preseason hype, Iona’s veteran team struggled for long stretches of the conference season.
Up until the conference tournament, the team seemed to hinge on All-MAAC Second Team guard McGill. He takes up most of the minutes at point guard and has been the starter for two seasons. He had an efficient regular season offensively (13.5 points per game, 5.6 assists per game, 4.1 boards per game), highlighted by an impressive 40-point performance at Rider on Feb. 25. McGill has improved his three-point percentage drastically and made strides as a passer, but in the MAAC Tournament Iona dominated without McGill doing that much (he only had two points after Iona’s first two games). McGill is still Iona’s most important leader, and he’s someone to watch out for in the NCAA Tournament.
If you watched the Championship against Fairfield, you will remember Roland Griffin, the Illinois State transfer who put up 29 points and looked unstoppable. Griffin is definitely the team’s X-factor—he only started five games in conference play and is very streaky. However, if the 6’7’’ forward is feeling it in the post and from midrange, he’s a dangerous offensive weapon for the Gaels.
There’s also Zach Lewis, another transfer via UMass and Canisius. Lewis also had a huge MAAC Tournament and has really played well down the stretch. Lewis is also inconsistent, but he averaged over 18 points per game during the conference tournament and figures to get a lot of playing time in the NCAA Tournament.
If you think that’s enough talent for Iona, you’d be mistaken. Part of why Iona was the preseason favorite was its depth, and I’d be loathe to finish a preview without mentioning Casimir, who shoots 46.3 percent from three and gets plenty of minutes despite only coming in at 5’0’’. Forward E.J. Crawford, the starter at the four, is another very good scorer who is just a sophomore.
Why they will/won’t be successful
Like every single Iona team in Cluess’ tenure, this year’s squad has a very solid offense and a leaky defense that will could it back in the NCAA Tournament. Seriously, Cluess has not had a team ever break the top 130 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. This year, the Gaels are 211th. In their last two NCAA Tournament games, Iona has failed to keep their opponents under 90, which is really not a recipe for success. Iona can certainly score. They have seven players who can shoot the lights out (everyone is over 50 percent in eFG% except for Lewis, who is at 49.8) and stretch the floor in crazy ways. Iona plays fast, efficient basketball that works very well when the other team is missing.
The defensive end is a real problem. While the Gaels looked great against lower-ranked MAAC teams in the conference tournament, they avoided playing Canisius, Rider or Niagara thanks to early upsets. They were focused and committed to playing defense in those three wins, but also had significant athletic advantages. Since they are bound to play a power conference team in the First Round, Iona is going to have bring that same level of intensity while also hoping for a bit of luck.
Due to their offensive potential, Iona seems like a high ceiling, low floor team heading into the NCAA Tournament. If the Gaels face a team on an off night or without a reliable offensive plan, they could race out to a lead and stay in the game. On the flip side, it’s also likely that they get completely blown out like they have in the last two NCAA Tournaments. This team was also not as good as the 2016 A.J. English team or last year’s team, so Iona is probably going to end up as a No. 15 seed or 16 seed. I think they’ll avoid the play-in game, but Iona is going to need a lot of help to avoid getting exposed by whomever it plays in the Big Dance.