Why Iona reminds me of VCU

Last season, after losing in the CAA Tournament, VCU got shuffled off the First Four in Dayton. The Rams barely made the field and fans were lashing out about how Shaka Smart’s team managed to get into the field over some more deserving candidates. Then the games started and the critics shut up. VCU rattled off five straight victories before falling to Butler in the Final Four.

Why can’t Iona do the same thing?

The more you look at it the more the similarities are there between VCU and Iona. There’s just one little difference in styles that I think might prevent the Gaels from having that same Cinderella story.

VCU circa 2011 and Iona are similar in a number of way, but especially on the defensive end. Both teams have strong offenses (KenPom had VCU’s ranked 32nd last season, Iona’s is 16th this season), but it’s their defenses that determined how games turned out during the regular season. VCU was upset by Georgia State, Northeastern and James Madison in CAA play and every time they allowed over a point per possession. (The game against NU was an atrocious 91 points in 65 possessions.) Part of this was because, like Iona, VCU’s defense relied so heavily on forcing turnovers. When teams hung onto the basketball they got good shots (maybe even one or two considering VCU’s defensive rebounding skills). That’s a high variance strategy.

Iona is much the same way. In the Gaels’ upset losses to Hofstra, Loyola (MD) and Manhattan they allowed over a point per possession. (The Siena game was a different story altogether.) Teams hung onto the basketball and beat up Iona’s suspect defense and the offense just couldn’t keep up. But in March the defense just has to hold up for seven games.

To do that requires focus. That comes from senior leadership, which starts at the point guard position. Last season VCU had one of the best senior leaders in the nation in Joey Rodriguez. His tenacity is all over the run the Rams made to the Final Four. This season Iona has Scott Machado. He’s one of the best point guards in the country, if not the best, and he’s the leader that can push his teammates harder and make the steady plays down the stretch. Machado’s 6’1″ and an NBA prospect, but what he can really do to help his stock is be the driver of a team that wins in March.

The experience permeates throughout the roster for Iona. The Gaels are the 12th most experienced team in college basketball this season, and actually the fourth most experienced team in the entire NCAA field. Seniors fill key roles throughout the roster including Mike Glover, Randy Dezouvre and Jermel Jenkins. In 2011 the Rams had a similar mix. Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozzell and Ed Nixon formed a core that helped VCU weather the emotions, twists and turns that ultimately come during an intense, single-elimination tournament. They managed things so well that they made it all the way to the brightest of spotlights in the Final Four.

It’s not a perfect comparison. There’s one big difference that could prevent Iona from cutting down the nets in the wide-open West Region. VCU’s defense wasn’t the only high-variance part of the equation. The Rams also could go off on offense. That’s because they shot a high volume of three pointers. Two of every five shots VCU attempted last season was a three (22nd in the country). Iona is nowhere near that rate this season. They rank 189th in 3PA/FGA at 32.1%. The odd thing is that it’s not because Iona’s missing them. The shooters are there. Machado is shooting 41.1%, Sean Armand 46.7%, Jenkins 39.8% and Lamont Jones 36.8%. As a team Iona is shooting 39.3% from beyond the arc, 16th best in the nation. So let it fly Tim Cluess!

Iona has a chance to prove everyone wrong. It’ll probably need a miracle or two along the way (remember VCU beat Florida State by a point in OT), but now that they’re in, the Final Four and beyond should be Iona’s goal. They’ve got the team to do it.

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