Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Iona unfazed by pomp and circumstance entering clash with Duke

Zach Lewis leads Iona into NCAA Tournament matchup with Duke that may appear one-sided on paper, but Gaels' senior leader is not concerning himself with Blue Devils' mystique. (Photo by New York Post)

Five national championships, multiple No. 1 NBA Draft picks, and the winningest coach in all of college basketball, responsible for nearly 1,100 victories in a Hall of Fame career.

All of that is irrelevant to Iona this week.

"We're here to compete," Zach Lewis said Wednesday as the Gaels descended upon Pittsburgh for the final round of pregame preparation before tipping off their third consecutive NCAA Tournament experience, and fifth in seven years, against Duke on Thursday in a Midwest Regional first-round matchup.

A perennial Top 25 outfit and among the richest of college basketball's blueblood programs, the Blue Devils can evince both ends of the polar spectrum of emotions in a straw poll of fans in all walks of life. But whether one loves or hates the names Krzyzewski, Allen, or Bagley, none of that matters once the ball is tipped.

"We understand the basketball tradition they have there," Duke senior Grayson Allen said of the Gaels, who first appeared on the national landscape under the late Jim Valvano over four decades ago. "They're not just a team that's lucky to be here. They do this, this is what they do."

"Talent is talent," head coach Tim Cluess said as he prepares to guide his Iona team into battle with Duke for the first time in school, history, hoping to become just the eighth No. 15 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game in the process. "When you get on a basketball court as a player, two minutes into the game, all of that adrenaline is gone and you're just playing basketball. That focus just appears. You don't know if there's anyone around you, you're just locked into what's going on."

With more experienced players the likes of point guard Rickey McGill, who will compete in his third NCAA Tournament game Thursday afternoon, the Gaels have a decided edge in players that have traveled the postseason terrain, an intangible that Duke's star-studded, freshman-laden roster does not possess, and one that another Iona veteran believes could be a difference-maker.

"We have experience with it," said Schadrac Casimir, the redshirt junior guard who enters March Madness as explosive a piece in the maroon-and-gold arsenal as any point since his return from hip surgery last season. "We're excited to get out there and try to set the tone for the new guys that haven't been here. I think once everybody gets a few plays down the court, the adrenaline will start running and everybody will be fine."

"I think it's going to help them as far as a comfort zone," Cluess added. "Being out there and knowing what the emotion is going to be like during the game, before the game, and everything we're going through right now, they can share that with our other players."

The experience is one of many factors, as Allen alluded to in his press conference, that suggest Duke is not taking its opponent lightly, or so it seems.

"They have a lot of guys that can beat you," he warned. "It's not a team that has a top scorer, a guy you have to watch. They have six or seven guys who can go off and be their leading scorer any game, so that makes them a dangerous team."

Call Iona what you wish, but the fact remains that Thursday's contest is nothing more than a business trip, one to which the Gaels travel with unflappable confidence and nothing to lose.

"We've got 40 minutes to play every game, and that's what we're going to try to do," said Lewis. "It's us against them. We're not worried about their powerhouse success and things like that, just 40 minutes that we've got to be better than them, just for that one day."

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