It is Sears Bracketbuster weekend and the University of Nevada (22-4) will fly East to New York to play the Iona Gaels (21-6). The game will be aired on ESPN 2 in matchup of first place mid-major NCAA contenders.
The Sears Bracketbuster event involves 142 teams and 71 games to be played around the country, matching teams from 16 mid-major conferences. This is a chance for the teams to showcase their skills and ability for the NCAA Tournament Committee.
It is an opportunity for the teams to improve their RPI standing by playing other top mid-majors.
For a select few it is a chance to show they belong in the NCAA's even if they lose their conference tournament on a buzzer beater. For those that will go on to win conference tournament it is a chance to improve their seeding so they can avoid first round match-ups with top opponents.
With a 4 p.m. start, the Iona-Nevada game matches two teams with twenty wins and low RPIs. Iona has an RPI of 52 and Nevada 56.
This is a big, veteran Nevada team, coming in to play the self-described undersized but quick Gaels. The Wolf Pack have gone 22-2 since two season opening losses. They have beaten the likes of Bradley, Washington and Arizona State in Tempe. Their only loss since November was on Feb. 4 to Idaho 72-68.
Nevada, from the Western Athletic Conference, is led by third year coach David Carter, a graduate of St. Mary's, who has been with the program 13 years. The Wolf Pack have a scoring average of 70.3 points per game and shoot 45.3 percent from the field. They have a lot of size on their roster with eight players that are 6'6" or taller. The Gaels are going to have their hands full playing a much bigger team than what they are used to in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Deonte Burton, a sophomore from Los Angeles at 6'1" is the Wolf Pack's leading scorer at 14.9 points a game. His backcourt partner 6' 7" junior guard Malik Story from Pasadena, CA, averages 14.7 points a contest. Story's height advantage will make him a tough player to guard for either of Iona's guards.
Another big player for Nevada is 6-8 guard Jerry Evans from Lawndale, CA who averages 6.7 points and 4.7 assists per game.
Senior forward Dario Hunt, 6' 8" and 238 pounds from Colorado Springs, Colorado; scores 9.7 a game, grabs 9.5 rebounds per game, and has 55 blocks on the season. Another Nevada forward averaging double digits in points at 12.7 and while producing 6.3 rebounds per game is 6' 7", 240 pound senior Czyz Olek from Poland.
Nevada has started the same line-up all season of Burton, Story, Evans, Hunt, and Olek. Except for Burton, Nevada's whole core is 6'7" or better.
I asked second year Iona Coach Tim Cluess about how an undersized Iona team can compete against a very tall and strong Nevada squad:
"We have no choice but to play small and fast as that is all we have".
Iona at 21-6 on the year is leading the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with a record of 13-3. They have signature non-conference wins over Maryland, Richmond, and Vermont.
Iona is first in the country in assists per game at 19.2 and second nationally in scoring averaging 82.9 points a game while giving up 72.5 The Gaels led by the inside play of Mike Glover are sixth in the NCAA in with a 49.4 percent shooting average. Their opponents shoot 44.3 percent against them.
Gaels' point guard Scott Machado, from Queens, NY leads the country in play-making with a average of 9.9 assists game. Machado had a triple double Sunday night against Marist and averages 13.3 points per game.
He was featured this week in a Sports Illustrated article.
Under the boards, fellow senior Mike Glover from the Bronx, NY leads the team in scoring at 18.6 points a game and rebounding with 9.3.
Lamont "Momo" Jones, from Harlem, transferred to Iona from Arizona and received an NCAA hardship waiver to play right away, is the second leading scorer at 16.1 points per game 3.4 assists.
Jones credits extra time in the gym working on his shooting as contributing to his 43 point outburst February 2nd against Canisius. Jones is second on the team in threes, hitting at 36 percent. As an alternate, Jones will shift to his "Pull-up" jumper midway down the lane.
Sean Armand from Brooklyn NY, at the swing 3 position, had 22 points Wednesday night against Rider and is the team's best three-point shooter. Armand has made a team leading 65 three-point shots at a remarkable 47 percent rate.
Kyle Smyth from River Edge, NJ is a noted defense player that splits time with Armand at the 3. Smyth also has a terrific three-point shot from the corner.
At the four for Iona is the combination of senior Randy Dezouvre from Montreal, Canada and junior transfer Taaj Ridley from the Bronx, in his first year with the Gaels.
Dezouvre has good hands with the basketball and can make clutch shots, as he did when he made the game winner at Denver in December. Ridley averages 7.3 points per game and is third on the team after Glover and Machado with 4.3 rebounds per game.
Iona needs Taaj Ridley to step up against Nevada's big forward line to give some additional muscle under the boards and take some pressure off of Glover inside.
Senior Jermel Jenkins from Union, NJ started at the two guard part of last season and is playing 13 minutes per game to give breathers to Machado and Jones. When hot, Jenkins hits the three at 37% rate providing another outside threat.
The biggest challenge for Iona is on defense, they sometimes give up quick baskets when their defense is not set. At times, they have struggled playing with a lead in the second half, most notably in the home game against Manhattan, in which they gave up a large lead.
Watch how Machado and Jones matchup against the Nevada guards Burton and Story. They may play a lot of zone to avoid the match-ups that the 6-7 Story can create. Then watch how the two Iona inside players, Glover and Ridley can do against the bigger Nevada forwards Hunt and Olek.
If Iona can run the ball, they may do well, but if Nevada can control the pace and force Iona to play a lot of half court defense, the size of the advantage of the Wolf Pack could be the edge.
Interview comment from Coach Cluess was exclusive to this article.
Ken Kraetzer covers Iona Basketball and West Point Football for Sons of the American Legion Radio on WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle and heard nationally on WVOX.com. Reach Ken on email@example.com or Twitter @SAL50NYRadio.