If ever a team were built to pull an upset, this year's Iona squad might be that team. All the pieces are present. Guards Jermel Jenkins and Kyle Smyth are each shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range. Point guard Scott Machado is a get-up-and-go assist machine with a penchant for forcing turnovers. Forward Alejo Rodriguez is an outstanding shot-blocker and a 62 percent FG shooter. And post Michael Glover is a junior college transfer who originally committed to Seton Hall and still looks and plays more like he belongs in the Big East than the MAAC.
Just ask Long Island coach Jim Ferry, whose much-improved team lost to Iona, 88-82, at home last week.
"Iona's a very good team and they're in for a special year," Ferry said. "They have a lot of pieces and a lot of talented offensive players. It's a hard team to keep down."
Who cares? Syracuse might.
The Orange host the Gaels Saturday night in a game that probably won't register on the national richter scale, what with the vibrations from Lawrence, Kansas (Josh Selby), Greensboro, North Carolina (Texas vs. UNC), and Dallas (Gonzaga vs. Baylor).
Besides, the chances that Iona will upset Syracuse -- or even come close -- aren't all that great. Ken Pomeroy's computers have this one going unceremoniously to home team, 80-63, with a five percent chance of an Iona victory. But no matter what, Iona's trip upstate will present an interesting opportunity to see the Orange face a quality opponent, to see how strong the MAAC is this season, and to find out whether anyone can Glover.
Actually Iona's effectiveness doesn't start with Glover. It starts with Machado, a 6-1 junior who has started 66 of 72 career games. Machado stands a solid 6-1, has an incredible burst in the open floor and a hard-to-guard first step. He's the MAAC's assist rate leader and claims the league's fifth-best steal rate, two qualities that make up for sub-standard outside shooting.
That being said, Iona's offense does end with Glover (at least it does 28 percent of the time). The 6-7, 215-pound forward has the kind of all-legs-and-arms body that screams "rebounder," and that first impression is pretty accurate. Glover, who was declared an academic non-qualifier after committing to Seton Hall out of prep school, has the length and pure athleticism to be a difference-maker in any conference. Seeing Glover go up against Long Island of the NEC looked downright unfair at times.
"He's versatile," said LIU coach Ferry of Glover. "First of all, he's huge, he's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's mobile, he can drive it, he's got great touch, got great hands, he's a tremendous offensive rebounder, he makes his free throws. That's a tough out. We held him at least under 30. He's going to do that to a lot of people."
"He belongs in the Big East, he doesn't belong in the MAAC."
Glover played well for the first four games of the season before throwing up a 3-for-8, seven-point stinker at Albany. Since then, he's scored 20, 39, 30, 28, and 20 points in Iona's last five games while hauling in 13, 14, 11, 10, and 12 rebounds in those contests. On the season, Glover's offensive rating is 116 on 28 percent of the Gaels' possessions and he's posting an effective FG percentage of 63 while grabbing 13 percent of the available offensive rebounds and 21 percent of the defensive rebound opportunities.
"(Glover)'s starting to play every possession," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "The sky's the limit. The more his work ethic grows, the better he's going to become as a player and he's really going in the right direction."
Aside from Glover and Machado, Iona is blessed with some talented pieces. Smyth is the requisite three-point gunner, Jenkins the lockdown perimeter defender and Rodriguez the quietly effective big man.
That mix of players has had quite a bit of early success. Iona lost by one to a decent Kent State team before becoming one of Cleveland State's many victims. Next, the Gaels unexpectedly lost to Bryant, a team coming off a 1-29 season. After that embarrassing loss, something clicked for Iona.
"It was really a reality check to them like 'Listen, we're not just going to walk out on the court and win,' the things coaches try to preach to players," Cluess said. "When they lost the third game, especially, to Bryant, it was like 'Wow, guess what? We're not as good as we thought.'"
The Gaels defeated a very good Richmond team in two overtimes before blowing out Albany, Niagara and Fairleigh Dickinson and handling Long Island, Norfolk State and Canisius. True, it's not the greatest of schedules, but the Gaels still carry a seven-game winning streak into this weekend, an early season run not many mid-majors can top.
Don't expect the Orange to be quaking in their high-tops, though. Syracuse has several actual quality Big East forwards in Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph and a guard in Brandon Triche who is more athletic (and skilled) than just about every mid-major guard. Iona has won in front of 1,248 hostile fans in Albany, 1,002 Norfolk State supporters in Virginia and a feisty group of 1,185 Long Island faithful in a small Brooklyn gym. But the Gaels are yet to face a challenge like the Carrier Dome, let alone a defense like Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone.
No one's saying an Iona victory is probable, but it is possible.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.