Is Iona part of this year’s NCAA Tournament because of their regular-season body of work? Or, is it a possible attempt by the selection committee to reach for another hit from the mid-major ranks, as it did with VCU a year ago?
Like VCU did a year ago, Iona will play in the NCAA Opening Round (aka “First Four”), taking on BYU on Tuesday night in Dayton.
Iona was definitely the most surprising name to come up on the brackets when they were released on Sunday evening. Still, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of public outcry over the Gaels’ selection.
In an interview with CBS Sunday evening, the committee cited Iona’s non-conference strength of schedule ranking (No. 43) as the biggest factor in selecting it as one of the last four at-large teams.
When compared with Drexel—seen as the biggest selection snub, particularly of the mid-major bubble teams—that simple SOS citing made Iona’s selection seem pretty justifiable.
However, compared with other bubble teams from the BCS-and-high-major conferences, Iona’s overall profile seemed to measure up a little less favorably.
This leads to the idea that perhaps the committee used one of these “First Four” spots to make a more out-of-the-box selection, one that is based a bit more on speculation than mere wins and losses or quality of wins.
Here are three possible thought processes the committee may have had behind selecting Iona into the field.
Rewarding a Mid-Major over a Power Conference Team
Last year, VCU was the only team from a true mid-major conference to be included among the “First Four” teams (Clemson, UAB and USC were the other three).
This year, while BYU is actually from a mid-major conference, it is not really perceived as a true mid-major because of its tradition and prior affiliation with the Mountain West. Therefore, if the committee wanted to include a true mid-major more along the lines of VCU a year ago, then Iona was one on a short list of teams it could choose from.
Besides Iona, the only other truly justifiable mid-major selections the committee could have made would have been Drexel—also from the CAA—or Oral Roberts, from the Summit League. Personally, I thought both those teams were deserving of a bid, but I wasn’t particularly confident either would be selected.
By rewarding Iona with one of the last four at-large bids, it is sending the message that power-conference teams should not feel entitled to a spot in the field of 68 just for going .500 in their league (or like Seton Hall, under .500).
Taking VCU a year ago was more of an out-of-the-box pick over a team like Colorado, who most thought would be in the field. As it turned out, the selection worked out pretty well in terms of the buzz generated by the Rams’ Final Four run.
Would a team like Colorado have made a similar run through the tournament? We’ll never know, but the committee probably knew a lot more about the Buffs’ limitations and lack of potential upside—because it played in the Big 12—than it did about those of VCU.
Iona is definitely more of a VCU, wild-card-type team than a team like Seton Hall, who plays in a heavily-televised league in the Big East. Seton Hall had a chance to play several of the nation’s Top 25 teams in conference play and most of the time came up short.
Iona, however, did not get the same built-in advantage of playing really good teams consistently. The Gaels put on a good performance early on in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off—playing Purdue and Maryland—and again late in the season in a BracketBusters win against Nevada.
However, Iona didn’t get a chance to play any of the nation’s best teams, teams that have a potential Final Four in them. This is similar to VCU last year, who played Tennessee and UCLA but no truly great teams.
The committee felt it was worth giving Iona one shot, in the national spotlight, to show what it is capable of against elite competition.
NBA Talent at Mid-Major Level
In terms of potential NBA-level talent, Iona flat out has more of it than any other mid-major team in college basketball. With two very likely NBA draft picks on its roster, and a third (forward Mike Glover) very much a possibility, Iona certainly has the look of an NCAA Tournament team in terms of its pure talent.
Much of Iona’s pro-level talent resides in its backcourt, with Scott Machado and Lamont “MoMo” Jones.
Machado is a fantastic point guard and at worst is one of the top five point guards in the nation. The senior makes Iona’s offense look machine-like at times. He is intelligent with the basketball and is never out of control. He can consistently find one of Iona’s many good outside shooters and can also knock down shots himself when the defense tries to play against the drive.
All of this makes Machado a likely NBA first-round pick this June.
Jones, who transferred from Arizona this past year to be closer to his New York family, has already showcased his talents on a national stage. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, Jones scored 18 in a second-round win over Memphis and 16 in the Wildcats’ rout of top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16.
With Iona, Jones has done well this year in more of a combo-guard role. Jones is capable of lighting it up from anywhere on the court, as evidenced by his 43-point effort against Canisius, but he can also drive-and-dish very effectively.
If he declares himself eligible for the draft this spring, Jones could be a second-round pick for a team looking for a backup point guard.
Other mid-major teams have one outstanding player with excellent pro potential. Creighton has Doug McDermott, Murray State has Isaiah Canaan, Weber State has Damian Lillard. There are others, but these three are the most notable.
With two such players, Iona has a unique backcourt tandem that will immediately draw casual fans in with their pure talent. It also may help carry the Gaels to multiple wins in the NCAA Tournament.