When George Mason crashed the Final Four in 2006, it was considered a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Most observers brushed off the Patriots' NCAA tournament run as nothing more than a fluke.
However, Butler has played in the last two national championship games and Virginia Commonwealth joined the Bulldogs in last season's Final Four. Suddenly, the idea of a mid-major advancing deep into the tournament and even daring to dream of a winning a national championship is no longer so far-fetched.
"It's given all of us mid-majors hope that anything is possible," Iona coach Tim Cluess said. "It's shown that you don't necessarily have to play in a big conference, have a big budget and big-time players to have a major amount of success. That's the beauty of the sport of basketball. In one game, anyone is capable of beating anyone. The biggest schools might have more advantages but that doesn't mean that a mid-major can't beat those teams."
The latest trend in college basketball prognosticating is trying to the next George Mason or Butler, a mid-major capable of playing through the end of March.
Iona certainly fits the profile through the early stages of the season as it is 4-1, including a 26-point rout of a rebuilding Maryland team in the Puerto Rico Tipoff. The Gaels have also beaten Western Michigan, Saint Joseph's and Long Island; their lone loss was by one point to Purdue in their opener at San Juan.
If nothing else, Iona can make the case for being the best team in the Metropolitan New York area.
"They've hit the ground running while the rest of us in the conference are still just trying to get the kinks worked out," said Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson, whose Stags are expected to give Iona its biggest challenge in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season. "At this point, the Iona Gaels certainly look like the best team in our league."
The MAAC begins conference play tonight and Iona visits Canisius (1-3). Golden Griffins coach Tom Parrotta knows it is going to be a difficult matchup.
"They certainly have a high-powered, high-octane offense," Parrotta said. "And the more tape I watch, the better they get. They're going to present all kinds of problems for us and everyone else in the MAAC."
Iona is averaging 95.4 points a game, which leads the nation. The Gaels are 17th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, according to kenpom.com, with a 111.7 mark, and ninth in adjusted tempo at 72.9 possessions a game. Kenpom.com also had them ranked 47th overall going into Thursday's action and they were 54th in the RPI.
Cluess went to a fast-paced offense last season when he took over at his alma mater after winning 98 games in four seasons at Division II C.W. Post. He replaced Kevin Willard, who left for Seton Hall after the 2009-10 season. Iona was 28th in the nation with a 113.2 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency while going 25-12 and reached the championship game of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, where it lost to Santa Clara.
Senior guard Scott Machado is doing a masterful job of running the offense as he leads the nation in assists with 12.2 a game. He also is averaging 18.6 points and 2.6 steals and has a 4.4 assist/turnover ratio with a .642 true shooting percentage and a .541 effective field goal percentage.
Machado has had at least 10 assists in all five games, including 15 against zero turnovers in the victory over Maryland. A relative unknown until starring for Brazil's 21-under national team last summer, Machado has dropped 12 pounds since the end of last season and became more dedicated to improving his game.
Machado, who was 11th in the nation with a 39.2 assist rate last season, has been so impressive that some NBA scouts believe he may be playing himself into the first round of the draft.
"It's like he's made two years' worth of improvement in one year," Cluess said. "He's a completely different player now. He's played great right from the first day of practice. The way he's playing right now, I really don't believe there is anybody in the country that is playing better."
Iona also has the preseason MAAC Player of the Year, as selected in a poll of conference coaches, in senior forward Michael Glover. He, too, lost weight--about 10 pounds--over the summer and is averaging 21.2 points and 11.0 rebounds a game with a .600 effective field goal percentage.
"We had bulked Michael up before last season in order to get him ready to play at the next level but it wound up working against him," Cluess said. "He's a lot quicker this season and he's got a lot of his athleticism back."
Junior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones has made an immediate impact after receiving a waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to play closer to his New York home this season following his transfer from Arizona, where he helped the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last March. Jones, who is averaging 13.6 points and 4.0 rebounding, received the waiver in order to be closer to home to his ill grandmother.
Junior guard Kyle Smith is the fourth Iona player scoring in double figures with an 11.8 average and a 63.4 true shooting percentage.
"If you look at our league right now, it is wide open--except for Iona," Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos said. "Iona is in a league of its own right now and we all have catching up to do."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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