Iona wonders: Why not us?
DAYTON, Ohio — A year ago, national talking heads counting down to the inaugural First Four were outraged by a mid-major that failed to win its conference tournament being invited to dance with college basketball's big boys.
VCU showed them. And showed USC — and eventually Georgetown and Purdue and Florida State and Kansas, too.
The NCAA tournament's newest concept provided the stage for one of the last four teams to make the field finish as one of the last four standing. Maybe last year's VCU run will create some buzz for the second First Four, which starts Tuesday at the University of Dayton Arena.
Maybe Iona can start an improbable run of its own.
Tuesday's nightcap pits the last two at-large teams in the field, No. 14 Iona vs. No. 14 BYU. This is the big stage for Iona College — enrollment 3,322 — of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which won the MAAC regular-season title but lost in the conference tournament semifinals. The Gaels are 25-7, and presumably got the nod from the tournament selection committee because 15 of those wins came away from their home building (capacity 2,611).
The road wasn't always kind to Iona, but Iona had to feel like it was always on the road. After three games in Puerto Rico to start the year, Iona beat NCAA tournament participant Long Island on Nov. 28 and didn't play a home game again until Jan. 3.
The Gaels are officially survivors, and they gathered Sunday night to watch the tournament selection show, fully aware that the cameras might capture looks of disappointment. Instead the scene was pure joy — followed by much outrage that Iona got in and teams like Drexel and Washington, the regular-season Pac-12 champion, did not.
"Just getting this opportunity is wonderful for us, because now we get to show the whole country what Iona basketball is about," point guard Scott Machado said. "And we just want to prove everybody that chose us right in the committee, and we want to show everybody that we can play and that we can compete with the best.
"We're well aware of (what's being said), but we really don't look at that. We really don't bother with what people are saying. We just want to prove ourselves, and we want to prove not only to ourselves, but to everybody else that we can play, and we're here to play."
Machado makes the nation's top scoring offense (83.3 points per game) go and might be a first-round pick in June's NBA Draft. He leads the nation at 9.9 assists per game, is shooting 41 percent on 3-point tries and is one of three 1,000-point career scorers on Iona's roster. Senior Mike Glover is the leading scorer at 18.5 points per game, and Arizona transfer guard Momo Jones is next at 16 points per game.
Nine Iona games all season were actually on television and not just webcast. If Machado really is the best point guard most of America has never seen — and he said Monday that he believes he is — he gets a chance to prove it on Tuesday before a national TV audience and an in-arena audience that will include President Obama and the British Prime Minister.
See what VCU did for the First Four's profile?
"The fact that VCU was here last year and went from here to there, it means anything's possible," Iona coach Tim Cluess said. "That's the great thing about mid-majors, low-majors to get this opportunity, is that we can all dream.
"The question is: 'Why not us?'"
Cluess admitted that he had no idea what kind of emotions Sunday night would bring — and that in Monday morning's practice his team looked "gassed" from celebrating the school's first NCAA tournament at-large berth ever and first tournament bid since 2006.
"It really felt (Sunday night) like a big game was about to occur that you're waiting in the locker room for the game to start," Cluess said. "You just feel your energy starting to flow.
"You start saying, 'I don't know if we're really going to have a shot at this' but when your team's name is selected, you look up there, take a second look, and next thing you know everyone's overjoyed and really enjoying themselves and sharing it with each other. It's a great thing for our school and our team, so I'm really happy."
The winner of Tuesday night's game goes on to play Marquette Thursday in Louisville — and also gets to play a little "told you so." That's the theme of the First Four in general, but specifically for a team like Iona that's extremely happy to be here but also eager to prove itself.
Seven years ago, Cluess was a high school coach. Two years ago, he was coaching in NCAA Div. II.
"BYU (was) a Sweet 16 team last year and has a richer history than we do," Cluess said. "So for us to go into this game, we're looking at it like we're the Cinderella team, and we're going to try to go out and show everyone we can play."