As winners of 14 consecutive games, Iona comes into March Madness with plenty of momentum. The Gaels’ February surge has taken over March. It wasn’t that long ago that Iona was staring down the barrel of a third- or even fourth-place spot in the MAAC, but Rick Pitino’s team turned it on and finished 17-3 for the second straight year.
Iona’s triumph in the MAAC Tournament was about the only part of the week in Atlantic City that wasn’t a surprise, and the Gaels claimed a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The reward for their season is a first-round matchup with Connecticut, who despite claiming a No. 4 seed, enters the tournament ranked fourth in KenPom.
Sidenote: In 2014, Manhattan got a 13 seed and drew Louisville, who ranked first in KenPom entering the tourney, but got a 4 seed. The coaching matchup in that game was Rick Pitino vs. Steve Masiello, both are on the Gaels’ bench.
But how will this game play out? Does the Hall-of-Famer have something up his sleeve? Let’s break it down.
Up and down these two lineups, you’ll find mostly similar roster construction with slight differences.
UConn’s Tristen Newton and Iona’s Daniss Jenkins are two high-level passing point guards who are a little bit bigger than the average PG. Newton is better at driving to the basket and getting to the line, while Jenkins is better at pulling up for mid-range jumpers. Overall though their mold is relatively similar.
Walter Clayton Jr. for Iona is a three-level scorer, a knockdown 3-point shooter with high level athleticism who plays mostly off the ball. All of that is very similar to Jordan Hawkins for UConn, who might just be the best shooter in college basketball. UConn runs a lot more off-ball screens for Hawkins, while Iona does do a little bit of pick-and-roll with Clayton, but he’s still primarily off the ball.
Berrick JeanLouis and Andre Jackson are both some of the best defenders in the country, boasting freak athleticism and the ability to guard one-through-four. Jackson offers a lot more in terms of playmaking and ability to handle the ball in transition, and while both aren’t great shooters, JeanLouis certainly has more confidence in that aspect.
Osborn Shema and Alex Karaban are not similar at all on the surface, but both are used as catch-and-shoot threats on offense. Shema is used much more prominently defensively, as his extremely long frame helps Iona deny the ball inbounds when pressing. The seven-footer is on the Gaels’ front line that is tied for third in the nation at 5.6 blocks per game. Karaban plays a much lesser role on defense, although he has stood up to the task of guarding some stronger post players, like Bryce Hopkins.
Adama Sanogo and Nelly Junior Joseph are both dominant junior big men from West Africa who spend most of their time operating with their back to the basket in the post-up. While Sanogo is stronger and more versatile, both have had their struggles with consistently putting the ball in the basket from point-blank range.
Joey Calcaterra and Anton Brookshire are both small for the shooting guard position but don’t quite handle well enough to play the point guard spot. Both are high-level shooters off the catch who have struggled defensively off the bench.
UConn’s Depth Advantage
Outside of Iona’s first six, they’ll play Michael Jefferson, Cruz Davis (nursing an injury right now and is questionable), Sadiku Ibine Ayo, and sometimes Silas Sunday. Their bench is not very strong but has young pieces with developmental plans for the future.
On the other hand, UConn’s rotation goes incredibly deep, with Calcaterra, Hassan Diarra, Donovan Clingan, and Nahiem Alleyne all providing excellent minutes off the bench. Clingan, in particular, could be a matchup problem for anybody in the country with his 7-foot-2-inch frame and elite shot-blocking skills.
The Huskies’ depth allows them to play at a fast pace with extreme physicality and aggression on the boards as they make the most of their incredible athleticism. While Iona will try to press for 40 minutes, UConn’s fresher legs could give them a major advantage late in each half.
Iona’s Ball Handling Advantage
While UConn has great guards, Iona is definitely significantly more careful with the ball, thanks to one of the advantages that Jenkins gives over Newton. Jenkins had a 30.7 assist percentage to 13.5 turnover percentage in MAAC play this year, an extremely impressive mark. Newton’s turnover rate was nearly 10% higher.
Diarra and Jackson can also be extremely reckless at times with the basketball, and if there’s one key place where Iona will have an advantage, it will likely be the turnover battle.
Unfortunately for Iona, UConn has the athleticism to run back with them in transition, as they were in the 85th-percentile for transition defense this season, mitigating the damage that the turnovers can do.
Iona’s press will also definitely be an issue for UConn, who turned the ball over a good amount against pressure and struggled to figure out the full-court press into a 3-2 zone for Providence last week in the second half of the Big East Quarterfinals.
Pitino has watched that film, and he knows this, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iona throws in some defensive looks that we haven’t seen much of all year for the Gaels.
Matchups to Watch
Sanogo is one of the strongest men in all of college basketball, and last time Junior Joseph faced a super-strong big man, he failed at backing down Rider’s Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson.
Junior Joseph is an incredible mid-major big man, but I’m not quite convinced that he has what it takes to bang with Sanogo in the post, especially when the All-Big East Husky comes up for the ball at the top of the key to try to initiate one of those dribble hand-offs that UConn absolutely loves to run.
JeanLouis will be the one tasked with running around off-ball screens set for Hawkins and whoever the main shooter for the Huskies is at a given time. Even if Hawkins is smothered, he can still hit threes from as far back as 28-30 feet, making him a matchup nightmare, and if you overcommit to him, he’ll reject the handoff, and a pass will be sent to either Newton (who has deep range himself), Jackson, or even the dangerous shooters Karaban, Alleyne and Calcaterra.
Whether Iona can stay with shooters all game long will be a key, and I know that Dan Hurley is making it a point to run JeanLouis around so he gets tired, as Iona knows that in order to win, it’ll probably have to stay mostly with their first five guys.
Two Teams, One Style
Both UConn and Iona actually try to do similar things with similar personnel, and therefore, this makes for an extremely fascinating game to prepare for. The Huskies are deeper and more athletic, which gives them an upper hand, but Iona has the coaching of Pitino, as well as former UConn assistant and 2004 national champion Taliek Brown on the staff, who knows this UConn team extremely well.
With the ability to press, force turnovers, grab offensive boards and play through talented combos of guards and bigs, Iona and UConn should be able to provide us with some high-quality entertainment on Friday afternoon.
I think UConn will win this game, but I think Iona keeps it very close for the entire first half and could even lead going into the break. However, as Iona’s starters begin to wilt, the Huskies will start to wear down the MAAC champs, and pull away to take the victory and move on to Sunday.
It’s really unfortunate that Iona got this draw, because I think I’d pick the Gaels to beat any other No. 4 seed and potentially even make the Sweet 16 if they were swapped in the bracket with Kent State.
Whether this is Pitino’s last game as the Iona coach remains to be seen, but he knows what’s at stake for his Gaels against UConn.