ORLANDO—You would have no idea that Iona was picked to finish ninth in the 17th best conference in terms of conference RPI after the Gaels' performance during the Old Spice Classic.
Iona won just one of three games against Florida State, Baylor, and Creighton, but the Gaels hung tough with both the Seminoles and Bears who feature front lines that coach Kevin Willard will never see in the MAAC.
"Baylor and Florida State are so long," Willard said. "It was nice to play against a team that when you go inside you see 7'0", 6'11", and 6'9" and it's difficult. We don't see that on a regular basis."
That length halted Iona's offense almost to a standstill for the first two days of the tournament, but the seventh place game against Creighton that Iona won 63-55 allowed the Gaels to show what they can do against a team that better fits the profile of a MAAC school.
"The length of the other teams interrupted us the other days," said sophomore point guard Scott Machado. "When we were able to get into the paint we were able to see the corners because they [Creighton] weren't as long as Florida State and Baylor."
With the driving ability of Machado and fellow sophomore Jermel Jennkins, it is critical they can either get to the rim or see the corner where capable shooters Kyle Smyth and Milan Prodanovic frequently waited.
Iona also showed the grit on the defensive end of the floor to make the Gaels extremely competitive in the MAAC. Holding Old Spice finalist Florida State to .8 points per possession and Baylor below one point per possession is no easy task.
That defense should translate directly to MAAC play.
Iona cranked up the defense even further Sunday against Creighton.
"We tightened the defense and contested more shots," said red-shirt freshman Kyle Smyth. "After the 17 minute mark of the second half we stopped turning the ball over which didn't let them shoot threes in transition."
With the strong defense came outstanding effort. Throughout the tournament, Iona hit the deck quicker than anyone, which translated into grabbing its fair share of 50/50 balls. That advantage helped Iona make up its rebounding disadvantage against its bigger opponents.
The final step to Iona's development is experience. After losing another close game to Baylor Friday night, Willard explained his team's trouble in close games.
"We lost 10 games by five points or less last year so we are getting used to it...it's a maturity thing. We started three freshman, a sophomore, and a senior against a very good Big 12 team."
Willard's players have gone through enough close games last year and three in Orlando against teams that should be playing some form postseason ball.
After the Creighton game, Willard, Machado, and Smyth were generally in agreement that one of best things they could take away from this trip was getting to play three close games against three very good teams.
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