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Get to know the Iona Gaels...again

Iona is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth year in a row.

NCAA Basketball: MAAC Conference Tournament-Monmouth vs Iona Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Neither fire, nor ice, nor a preseason scuffle between its then-best player and a coach, nor a 2-9 start to the regular season could kill Iona, now four-time defending MAAC champion. The Gaels defeated Monmouth last Monday to advance to the NCAA Tournament once again. This is not a vintage Gaels team, as four straight MAAC losses early in the schedule demonstrated.

But it wasn’t a vintage MAAC, either, and Iona hasn’t lost since. The Gaels will ride a 10-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament, although they can be thankful that poor Davauhnte Turner of Saint Peter’s — who hadn’t missed a free throw in a month prior — missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have driven a stake through Iona’s heart in the MAAC quarterfinals. But here we are.

Iona was a No. 13 seed in 2016, a No. 14 in 2017, a No. 15 in 2018, and likely a No. 16 here in 2019, but the Gaels are hot and (surprise, surprise) have a plethora of shooters that can maybe get hot together. Defense hasn’t really been their thing this season (274th in overall efficiency), but the uniforms will certainly have the tournament experience on their side, even if it is almost a brand new team from a year ago.

Where is Iona?

Iona is from New Rochelle, N.Y., home of New Roc City and a short 15-mile train ride to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. It was founded in 1940, and has been a member of Division I since then. It does have one NCAA Tournament victory, but it was back in 1980 over Holy Cross. It has lost 12 straight NCAA games since, although it had a couple of close calls: one against Syracuse in 1998 and another against Mississippi in 2001. But hey, 13 NCAA Tournament appearances is impressive, no?

Who is their coach?

You should know Tim Cluess. In addition to now having gone to the NCAA Tournament six times (and the NIT twice) in nine seasons, his teams have an amazing offensive record at Iona, leading the MAAC in efficiency in eight of his nine campaigns. Not bad for someone who came from Division II LIU Post in 2010 (replacing Kevin Willard at the time). He had been rumored for bigger jobs, but at age 60, he may have to live with being a mid-major legend. Which isn’t so bad.

Is there a player from Iona I should know?

Unlike Iona teams of the past (see Scott Machado or A.J. English), this Gaels team does not have a true superstar worthy of national praise. But point guard Rickey McGill will be playing in his fourth straight NCAA Tournament, which is fairly amazing, and he’ll be called on to run the show. He had a mediocre shooting season, but seems to have regained some form of late, and the Gaels will need it.

The rest of the roster

After McGill, it kind of depends on the day, which may be a strength rather than a weakness this time of year. At 6-foot-9 and capable of stepping out on occasion, junior Tajuan Agee might have the best chance of having a huge day. He hit a trio of three-pointers in the MAAC final and if he can do that, Iona will be really tough to defend.

E.J. Crawford is an Iona veteran who will be playing in his third NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-6 lefty can get to the rim and hit outside shots if needed. Eastern Kentucky transfer Asante Gist will come out firing, as will former San Diego State player Ben Perez, who has attempted 164 field goals this season, 122 of them three-pointers.

Required reading

Josh Thomson, Rockland/Westchester Journal News | Iona’s season is Tim Cluess’ masterstroke

Will Schneiderhan, The Ionian | From Chicago to New Rochelle, Tajuan Agee has found a new home at Iona

Can they win?

In Dayton, sure. The Gaels, at 17-15, may actually welcome a play-in game and a chance to meet what could be an overmatched and unfamiliar opponent on national television to start the NCAA show. As they showed in the MAAC Tournament, they are tough to guard when shooting well, and their ability to open up the floor — a hallmark in the Cluess Era — makes them extremely fun to watch. Of course, Cluess and Iona have been to Dayton before in the NCAA Tournament. And it did not end well.

Against the only good competition Iona played this season (Providence, VCU, Yale), Iona was blown out and the aforementioned defense and lack of rebounding (262nd on the defensive boards) will be extremely tough to combat against a No. 1 seed, no matter how hot they are from the outside. But stranger things have happened. As recently as last year, in fact.