NCAA Tournament preview: (15) Iona vs. (2) Ohio State

USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeye's march to Atlanta starts with a second round tussle with the Iona Gaels of the MAAC. How do the Buckeyes stack up, and does Iona have any chance at an upset?

There is an old story about Jim Valvano and his early coaching days at Iona. Shortly after he was hired, Valvano attended a social gathering with several non-athletics professionals. He stuck his hand out and would introduce himself quickly as "Jim Valvano, Iona College". At the end of the party, one of the other guests finally approached him and said "Jim, you look awfully young to own a college."

Sadly, Ohio State's opening round matchup is with an actual basketball team, not a precocious individual who owns a higher education institution.

You might have heard of Iona from last year's First Four matchup. The Gaels blitzed through the regular season thanks to NBA prospect Scott Machado, beating big names like Maryland, Saint Josephs and Richmond en route to 25 wins, but were upset by Fairfield in the MAAC tourney.

They drew a 14 seed against BYU, and immediately cruised to a 15 point halftime lead, leading to the despair of Mormons everywhere on Twitter. That lead ballooned into a 25 point advantage in the second half, before the high-flying Gaels were suddenly grounded, and Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies lead the Cougars to a 38-17 second half advantage en route to the biggest comeback in NCAA history. I understand if this is still a sore subject among Iona fans.

The Gaels did manage to knock off a pair of BCS conference schools, but also dropped league games to Marist and St. Peter's

This year's squad isn't as strong as last year's, although they still like to push the pace. Iona finished 20-13 overall, with an 11-7 record in the MAAC, good for a 4th place tie in the regular season. The Gaels did manage to knock off a pair of BCS conference schools (Wake Forest and Georgia), but also dropped league games to Marist and St. Peter's, both of whom lost more than 20 games. Over a month long stretch from the end of January to February, Iona went 1-6.

But rather than folding, the Gaels rallied to save their season just in time, winning 5 in a row, including victories over Canisius, Niagara and Manhattan to win the MAAC tourney and grab a bid.

The Gaels, second in the country at 80.7 ppg, are lead by their senior guard, 6-0 Lamont "MoMo" Jones. Jones averages 23 points per game (good enough to be the nation's third leading scorer), and averages over 7 free throw attempts a game. MoMo isn't a particularly strong three point shooter, but will press and drive to the basket, or get to the line, where he is an excellent free throw shooter. Jones has gone off a few times this season, dropping 40 on Quinnipac and 37 on Marist, although he hasn't faced an on-ball defender anywhere near the caliber of Aaron Craft. Expect to hear Jones' name a lot on Friday.

MoMo's backcourt mate can fill it up as well, as Sean Armand averages 16.6 points, along with 5 rebounds a game. Armand has more size (6-4). and is a much stronger three point threat (41%). In fact, that's mostly all he does, as Armand doesn't get to the basket, and his total FG% is barely better than his downtown chances, at 44%. He can be a very dangerous threat if he heats up (he hit 9 threes against Canisus, 7 against St. Bonaventure), but can be forced to be inefficient if his shot isn't falling. Lenzelle, Scott and company will make sure it doesn't.

"They're aggressive. But they haven't played against the style of play we like to play," - Iona guard MoMo Jones

And that's to say nothing of their bravado. Besides Armand's comments that he plans to play on Sunday and doesn't think Iona defeating Ohio State would be an upset, Jones spent the media session Thursday taking the same bravado to another level. "[Ohio State's] aggressive. But they haven't played against the style of play we like to play," he told the media. He'd also add that he didn't think they'd be bothered by the likes of Craft and Scott essentially stating that they face press defense in practice daily and it wouldn't be anything new to them. To paraphrase Lenzelle Smith Jr, "Whatever. We'll see when we play."

Iona's big men are lead by 6-8 sophomore David Laury, who averages a double double at 13.1 ppg and 10.4 rebounds, although Iona's fast paced system leaves lots of rebounding opportunities. Laury has been a consistent scorer and has slapped up a few impressive box scores this year (a 20 and 17 against league leader Niagara stands out), but he's shown he can be vulnerable to foul trouble.

Size is going to be a major concern for Iona, and is probably the biggest reason they want to play a frantic pace. Outside of Laury, Iona only has one player taller than 6-5 in the regular rotation, and that's Shawn Jackson, a 6-9 center who averages only 13 minutes and 2 rebounds a game. Even a smallball lineup with Deshaun Thomas at center could potentially wreck havoc on the Gaels, to say nothing of who is going to stop Sam Thompson from getting into the lane.

Iona checks in at 98th in the KenPom rankings, which is the highest of the 15 seeds, but below schools like Fresno State, Georgia and Washington State.

Final Thoughts

On paper, you'd think that a team that could potentially score in bunches could be worrying for an Ohio State squad that has been known to take a few minutes (or you know, ten) off from scoring. However, the Buckeyes are playing their best basketball (and defense) of the season, Iona hasn't seen guards with the size or on-ball defending ability that the Buckeyes can bring, and you have to think that Deshaun Thomas' mini-scoring slump has to end soon. Worst case scenario, should Iona come out strong, the Buckeyes could always slow the game down and effectively 'Wisconsin' them to death. The Gales would have to play out of their mind and bury Ohio State in threes to even have a chance.

Prediction

Holy Diver. Iona could make this interesting early, before the Bucks clamp down and grab a 78-62 opening round win.

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