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Road-tested Iona ready for First Four tilt with Brigham Young

By Greg Johnson
NCAA.org

As part of a series, NCAA.org reporter Greg Johnson is following the Iona Gaels through their experience in the NCAA First Four.

 

If any team can handle a hectic road trip, it is Iona.

Travelling was an absolute for the Gaels this season, especially in December when all eight of their games were played away from their campus in New Rochelle, N.Y. Throw in that their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference home game against Siena on Jan. 3 was moved to Madison Square Garden, and you could excuse their fans if they needed to buy programs to remember the Gaels’ faces.

But the nine-game odyssey produced a 7-2 record. More importantly, it seasoned the team.

This trip has included a 9:30 a.m. practice on Monday before flying to Dayton where the players and coaches conducted news conferences, held an open practice and went over scouting reports of tonight’s game against Brigham Young in the First Four.

The hectic pace wasn’t reflected in the relaxed look the Gaels displayed during their open practice at the Dayton Arena 24 hours after finding out they were an at-large selection into the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship on Sunday night.

“It was draining, but it was something we had to go through,” said senior point guard Scott Machado, who leads the nation in assists at 9.9 per game. “It made us a strong team. There was always another road game that we had to win.”

 It was all part of the preparation that helped the Gaels, 25-7, reach this point when they take on 25-8 Brigham Young tonight following the first game featuring Mississippi Valley State against Western Kentucky that tips off at 6:40 (EDT) on truTV.

The month-long excursion featured stops at Canisius, Niagara, Denver, Marshall, Richmond, Vermont, William and Mary, Hofstra and Siena.

“It was a crazy experience being in all the different weather environments and climate changes,” said junior guard Momo Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer at 16 per game. “We had people get sick, and we had to deal with our bodies. You may get injured, and you have to get on a flight the next day.”

Jones credited the team’s athletic training staff with keeping the players’ bumps and bruises under control during the stretch.

On the court, Iona coach Tim Cluess saw his team rise to the challenge of the schedule that needed to be played in case the Gaels failed to win the MAAC automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament.

It turned out to be the right decision as the top-seeded Gaels were upset, 85-75, by Fairfield in the MAAC semifinals. The Division I Men’s Basketball Committee decided that Iona’s total body of work, which included 15 road wins, merited a berth in the national tournament. (The 15 road wins was second-most nationally behind Murray State’s 17.)

“That is part of why we had the season we had,”  said Cluess, who coached for four years at Division II C.W. Post before leading Iona to a 50-19 mark over the last two seasons. “If we had a setback, we had to recover from it. These guys were great at doing that.”

Cluess found out which players handled certain roles, and he watched the chemistry and his team’s play improve.

“That happened because they have been with each other for a long period of time in an environment that didn’t include their normal home and school lives,” said Cluess, whose team leads the nation in scoring (83.2) and assists (19.3). “They were strictly together for studies, school and basketball.”

If the Gaels are victorious tonight, they will advance as the 14 seed in the West Region and play third-seeded Marquette on Thursday in Louisville.

That would mean more packing of suitcases and another quick turnaround.

“That is what we’re accustomed to,” Machado said. “We are ready to go.”

Jones added: “We are used to playing on away courts and neutral courts. It’s not anything new for us. We know how dedicated and how hungry you have to be to go on the road. We are going to treat this one just like we’ve treated every road trip this year.”