Thursday, March 17, 2016

Iona prepares for NCAA Tournament test against Iowa State

Tim Cluess and Iona play third NCAA Tournament game in five years on Thursday, taking on Iowa State in first-round action from Denver. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

As they descend upon Denver for their third NCAA Tournament experience since 2012, Iona has been talked about as more than just the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion, gaining palpable upset buzz as a potential first-round victor despite their No. 13 seed.

The Gaels take the floor for their first game on this stage since 2013 on Thursday afternoon, when they meet fourth-seeded Iowa State at 2 p.m. Eastern time in a Midwest Regional matchup from Denver, and in many ways, the Cyclones are a mirror image of sorts for Iona, given their multifaceted offensive attack and floor spacing that tends to produce nearly 80 points per game on average.

"I think their biggest thing is they have really balanced scoring," said senior forward Aaron Rountree in assessing Iowa State and what they bring to the table, including six players with double-figure scoring averages. "I think we have to stick to our defensive principles and let that take care of itself. We can't change our defensive game plan to match them. We have to do what we do, and play Iona basketball."

And what exactly is Iona basketball, you might ask? Well, for those who are uninformed, their leading scorer and first team All-MAAC selection offered an explanation of the brand that has become a household name in their New Rochelle home.

"Just an up-and-down pace of game," senior point guard A.J. English said, describing the Gaels' style on the hardwood. "What people might think of as bad shots are good shots for us, but also if somebody gets it going, we don't just look to get them the ball right away. We might run a set, three, four passes, and then get them the ball, try to speed teams up defensively."

While Iona's speed is something the Cyclones are relatively familiar with, the concern around the Big 12 power is not the offensive activity, but what is done on the defensive end, particularly limiting opportunities in transition.

"We've got to be great in transition," Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said of the matchup with the Gaels. "We've got to guard the dribble, guard the three-point line. They have a couple of really talented kids, especially English and (Isaiah) Williams, and a couple of other guys that can really make plays."

"At the end of the day, the team that puts the most stops together, that gives up the least easy baskets, is probably the team that's going to win," he elaborated. "Our plan will be really trying to focus on guarding them."

And as for Iona, the token mid-major underdog talk has already commenced, as has the question of whether or not the Gaels are constructed to win on this stage, especially after their infamous collapse against Brigham Young in the First Four four years ago. But as one might expect, all the chatter has fallen on deaf ears for a team focused on winning its first NCAA Tournament game since the late Jim Valvano guided them to the second round in 1980 during a memorable 28-4 campaign.

"It's not about whether we're an underdog or a lower seed on people's brackets," said Rountree. "We're just going out there to play."

"I just think a lot of it is all about your matchups and your depth," head coach Tim Cluess explained, answering the concerns of his roster reigning supreme. "That's what it really comes down to. When you're a mid-major playing the top teams in the country, you have to have that special day to beat them. They may be better than us 364 days out of the year. We just have to be better than them one day, and we're hoping that day is tomorrow."

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