Another installment in the series looking at team's prospects for the men's MAAC tournament.
Up now, Iona.
No. 3 seed Iona (12-6 in MAAC play, 21-9 overall)
SEASON ANALYSIS: Your blogger, as far back as August, picked Iona to finish sixth in this years standings and that prediction was higher than any other that I saw. The prediction came with the caveat that if things came together, the Gaels could do even better. Well, things came together, and Iona's program is above average again, rising from a 2-28 finish in the 2006-07 season. Since then, Iona has jumped up 237 places in the RPI. The improvement over that time span is the best in NCAA Division I for teams that have lowered their RPI in each of the last three seasons.
The Gaels have accomplished it despite considerable new parts of late, including four true freshmen and two red-shirt frosh. Sophomore Scott Machado has made a noticeable improvement at the point over a strong freshman year. Once his own offensive game improves, he'll be among the league's elite players. The team has real quality wins over Providence and William & Mary, and has a 12-3 record over its past 15 games.
HOW IONA CAN WIN THE TOURNAMENT: It probably needs to see someone other than Siena in the championship game. The Saints have pretty much dominated the two regular-season meetings (73-60 at Iona, 88-68 in Albany). But, the Gaels could reasonably get a chance to try again. It beat Niagara, its first-round opponent, in both regular-season games. After that, it probably gets Fairfield in the semifinals, which shapes up as one of the most-intriguing contests of the event. The Gaels need to continue playing hard-nosed defense (it allows just 61.8 points per game, second best in the MAAC) and to make a few more shots if it plays Siena again.
WHY IONA WON'T WIN THE TOURNAMENT: No. 1 is Siena's seeming mastery over the Gaels thus far; No. 2 is an unenviable route to the championship with a first-round game against something-to-prove and still-talented Niagara and the potential of a second-round game with Fairfield, that recorded a 69-53 victory over the Gaels on Friday. Iona probably doesn't have enough firepower on offense to win three straight games in this event.
PREDICTION: I'm not certain Iona gets past Niagara in the quarterfinals.. Unless it can slow the Purple Eagles' up-tempo offense, it could be one and done for the Gaels.
WHAT'S NEXT? There is still much at stake for Iona this weekend. Its decent RPI puts it in contention for NIT consideration. The guess here, though, is that it needs to advance to the championship game to keep its NIT aspirations strong. Beyond this season, there is much to be positive about. The only two seniors on the roster are reserves. This year's success is just the start for the Gaels, who figure to be one of the top two teams in the MAAC next season.