Iona is going to the NCAA Tournament! After two straight years winning the MAAC regular season title and failing to make the tourney after a painful loss in the conference championship game, the Gaels finally turned the tables Monday night, beating top-seeded Monmouth. (Sorry, everybody who got excited about Monmouth.)
So far as fun underdog stories go, Iona's a good one. They're maniacs playing an unhinged offense centered around fast breaks and gunning threes. Their NCAA Tournament experiences have ended in heartbreak and pain. Their coach seems to utterly hate 90 percent of things about college hoops, and isn't afraid to tell people. And they'll have two of the most intriguing players in the tournament.
Here's everything you need to know about this school of 4,000 students in the NYC suburb of New Rochelle, from how their offense works to what a "Gael" is.
Running and gunning
How can Iona pull an upset? Well, their coach, Tim Cluess, is kind of a crazy person. Let's let him tell it in his own words, from a New York Times profile focused on his fast break-themed offense.
"I will never, ever play the game the other way," Cluess said. "We're not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I'd throw up."
The article details how Cluess has his team run drills starting with just five seconds on the shot clock. Of the 351 teams in college basketball, Cluess has never coached an Iona team outside of the top 50 in tempo. At 46th, this is among his "slowest" thanks to the new 30-second shot clock, but even so, they still scored 100 points three times.
And what do they do when they get across half court? They shoot the dang ball; 44.2 percent of the Gaels' shots are threes. Even in an era increasingly based on shooting threes, Iona shoots the ball a lot.
So far, it's worked. In six years with the Gaels, Cluess has won the MAAC regular season title three times and now he's won the conference title three times as well.
If you're looking for a fun upset pick, Iona's your squad. They're not going to win a 44-43 brawl. They're going to win by outsprinting their opponent and burning them from deep.
English and Washington, a revolutionary pairing
So, the player you absolutely need to know with Iona is A.J. English. The son of an NBA player of the same name, English is Iona's senior stud who averages 22.4 points, 6.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. The 6'4 senior is Iona's lifeblood. English is the perfect operator for the Gaels' up-tempo system. He guns over nine threes a game and connects on 37 percent of them, plus he's fast enough to get fouled in transition and good enough at passing to make the team's organized madness work. If Iona wins, it probably features English going off.
However, I'd also like to draw attention to another player, Jordan Washington, who boggles the mind. A 6'8 junior college transfer, Washington is one of the few people in college basketball averaging double digits while playing less than half of his team's minutes. He's second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game, but just seventh in playing time. How is this possible? Of all the thousands of players in college basketball, Washington leads the nation (!!!) in percentage of possessions used. When he's on the floor, 38.4 percent of the team's possessions end with the ball in his hands. He's also second in the nation (!!!) in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and third in the nation (!!!) in offensive rebound rate. Iona goes fast, but remember: All these stats are tempo-free, based on how often Washington does something per possession, not how often he does them overall.
Washington's emotions were described as "volcanic" during his recruiting process. Despite high-major interest, he ended up at a community college in Iowa, where he was an All-American and committed to Arizona State. However, he lost his opportunity to go to ASU over $17.84. He attempted to steal two DVD's, Taken and Curse of Chucky from a local Walmart, and was charged with 5th-degree larceny. (Yes, yes, yes: He took a copy of Taken.) Over his $18 crime spree, Washington lost his ASU scholarship offer. (Alas, the curse of Chucky strikes again.) Iona was happy to take a high-major talent with $18 of wrongdoing to his name.
When Washington's on the court, he changes everything. The problem is he struggles to stay on the court. He commits over eight fouls per 40 minutes, and was suspended for two games for slapping a Monmouth player. The longer Washington can stay on the floor without fouling or losing his temper, the better chance Iona has of winning.
College basketball's greatest hater
First of all: I wanted to make the title of this section a pun with Tim Cluess' name about the movie Clueless, but you can't really make a pun with a single word? Like, the headline would've just been "Cluess" which isn't a pun, it's just the guy's name. So instead, I've updated the poster:
I want to give Cluess credit not just for his offensive system, but also for his utter refusal to take crap from anybody. Perhaps you gathered this from the words above. Tim Cluess certainly does not hate the player, but my goodness, does he hate the game.
In The Times last year, he ripped virtually everything about the sport of college basketball.
"The product stinks," he said... His vexations include N.C.A.A. rules restricting summer workouts ("Let them play as much as they want"), the nap-inducing 35-second shot clock ("Go 24, don't go 30") and the declining skills of players coming out of Amateur Athletic Union leagues ("How many guys can shoot the ball nowadays?").
In Grantland, he ripped the way other coaches try to improve:
"How can we get more scoring, what rules can we tweak?" Cluess asks rhetorically. "Well, how about getting our players better?"
Everybody loves Monmouth's bench ... but Tim Cluess hated on Monmouth's bench:
In 2012, he hated on big-league teams stealing his opportunity to play in the NCAAs:
Iona Coach Tim Cluess: "If you’re going to pick 8 or 9 teams out of the Big East, that’s nonsense. Those teams aren’t as good as we are."— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) March 4, 2012
Over the years, I'd say he's paid enough dues climbing up the basketball ladder to vent.
He spent over a decade as a high school coach on Long Island, winning four state titles. (Coaching Danny Green helped.) He spent a season as a community college coach, winning 20 games. He spent four years as a D-II coach, winning three league championships and making the Elite Eight. He's now been at Iona six years, and they've won the league three times and now they've been to the NCAA Tournament three times as well.
Someday, Cluess will get to coach at every level of basketball, and he will be successful at all of them.
A Gael is not a gale wind, nor is it Gale Sayers. It is a Gael, or a Gaelic person. This refers to anybody who speaks a language from the Gaelic family. Although this was once applicable to people from Ireland, Scotland and the various islands in between them, almost all speakers of Gaelic languages now live in Ireland. So, basically, "Gael" means "person from Ireland." We might have a multi-Gael tournament, with St. Mary's in the WCC Final tonight.
The school itself is named after an island off the western coast of Scotland that's home to a famous abbey. Inside the "o" in "Iona," there is a Celtic cross, of which there are many prominent examples on the island of Iona.
The Gaels' mascot is Killian, who NO. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO
Photo: Chris Chambers, Getty Images.
THOSE EYES. THAT SMILE. KILL IT.
Iona's school motto is "certa bonum certamen," which translates to "fight a good fight." I've officially had enough of Notre Dame and their mascot. Iona's teams are Irish and their motto urges them to fight for good causes. But they didn't name their teams "the Fighting Irish" and make their mascot a freakin' bare-knuckled brawling leprechaun.
Always close, never the cigar
Man, it's about dang time for Iona to win an NCAA Tournament game. They've been 10 times before, and they're 1-10 with seven losses by five points or less. Twice they've lost by one point, twice they've lost by two points.
Their last trip to the dance was in 2013, when they lost big to Ohio State as a 15-seed. The past two seasons, they've won the MAAC but have been left out.
The Gaels have produced several NBA-ers, including old-timey Hall of Famer Richie Guerin and 1980s All-Star Jeff Ruland. In recent years, it's been slim. The only Iona NBA player in recent memory is Scott Machado, who signed a 10-day contract with the Warriors all the way back in 2013, when they weren't the best team ever to play any sport on any level.
Can the Gaels pull the upset?
They've got a chance!
It's true that both of Iona's wins against NCAA-tournament caliber teams came against ... Monmouth, a team now hoping for an at-large bid. But they're ranked 71st in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, which would put them in the middle of the pack in most power conferences. The Gaels have had some bad losses, but they've won 12 of 13 heading into the tournament.
If they shoot well and play a team that doesn't match up well with a fast-paced offense, Iona could be a Cinderella for sure.
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March Madness: How the NCAA Tournament plays out