Springfield, MA—Iona led Fairfield by six midway through the second half of Sunday’s MAAC Tournament semifinal when the Gaels’ Scott Machado attempted a three-pointer. Iona had just forced a turnover and Machado was open on the wing. He missed, just barely, and Fairfield’s three-pointer on the ensuing possession started a 16-1 run that propelled the Stags to an 85-75 victory. A basketball game—and a chance at the NCAA Tournament—can change that quickly.
By losing in its conference tournament and therefore failing to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, this is Iona’s predicament. But it’s also Drexel’s. It’s Middle Tennessee’s. It could be Long Beach State’s. If college football is split between the Haves and Have-Nots, college basketball gives us the Haves and the Have They Done Enough?
Outside of the power conferences and fringe-majors like the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West are 20 or so conferences where teams win their league tournament or watch the Big Dance on television. They’ve been playing basketball in Iona’s league, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, for 30 years and only once has the league been awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament (Manhattan in 1995).
Iona is hoping that this Sunday, when the Tournament bracket is released, it will join Loyola (MD)—the winner of the league’s automatic bid by virtue of its conference tournament title on Monday night—in the field of 68.
Good wins, bad losses, and the Eye Test
It’s a debate as synonymous with Selection Sunday as a Dick Vitale rant: Should the final spots be given to middle-tier teams from power conferences or mid-majors that won more games but don’t have as many quality wins?
Iona’s résumé looks familiar among mid-majors on the bubble over the years: 25-7 record and a regular season title; 21 road or neutral site games compared to 11 at home; 9-3 nonconference record with wins over potential Tournament teams Nevada and St. Joseph’s (in addition to a win over Loyola in the MAAC). Some of Iona’s other wins sound better than they really are, though it wasn’t the Gaels’ fault: Maryland and Richmond, for example, had disappointing seasons.
“I don’t think that because you get knocked off in your playoff game that everything you did all season long should be thrown out the window,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said after his team was bounced by Fairfield. “We had a very good RPI [currently 43]. To me, if that’s not going to get you an at-large bid, then what’s the sense of having a schedule like that? I’m hopeful that the NCAA looks at that and rewards us for it.”
Cluess continued when pressed on the subject: “If [an at-large bid] is not realistic then it’s never happening. What do you need your RPI to be? We should definitely be in the discussion. If you’re going to pick eight or nine teams out of the Big East, I think that’s nonsense. Those teams aren’t as good as we are. The top teams, yeah, but not the 7th-, 8th-, 9th-place teams there or in any other league—not this year.”
Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos lobbied for Iona before, during, and after the MAAC Tournament. But he knew the Gaels’ failure to reach the conference title game didn’t help their cause. “I think they deserve an at-large bid but I’m not naïve. Joe Lunardi is busy right now and it’s not with the [the MAAC].” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello made his case for the Gaels in a conference call with media before the MAAC Tournament, citing Iona’s difficult schedule and its talented roster. “You put those kids on a big stage in a tournament setting and they can beat anyone,” Masiello said.
It’s not just the MAAC coaches bragging about one of their own. When Iona beat Nevada, the top team in the Western Athletic Conference, in a BracketBuster game on Feb. 18, Wolf Pack head coach David Carter said the Gaels definitely deserved an at-large should they not get the automatic bid.
The Gaels hung 90 on Nevada that day, not uncommon for them: they lead the country in scoring at 83.3 points per game. But other than two conference losses in which they blew huge leads, all of Iona’s defeats came when the opponent scored at least 82 points. The Gaels much prefer to be racing up the court with the ball; on defense, they often seem to be day-dreaming about their next offensive possession.
They are in the top 20 in the nation in three-point accuracy (39.3 percent) but have trouble on the boards, partly because they are undersized. Cluess says they look like a high school team even compared to other MAAC squads. The biggest player in Iona’s rotation is Mike Glover, listed at 6’7” but, according to Cluess, is 6’6” with shoes and two extra pairs of socks.
The Gaels do a lot of the pretty things to win games—score in bunches, share the ball (they lead the country in assists), force steals with their press—but not always the little things, like dive for loose balls and get defensive stops in critical moments.
In other words, like all teams, Iona has strengths and weaknesses. Unlike many fans, the committee members will look only at how those strengths and weaknesses translated into wins and losses. They won’t care that Iona has three potential pros on its roster or plays an exciting style of basketball. That’s probably for the best—the selection process should be a meritocracy, not a beauty pageant—but it’s tantalizing to think about an unfamiliar opponent trying to deal with Iona’s fast-paced attack.
Life on the bubble
Remember, just because a team is good, deserving, and capable of winning a game or two in the Tournament doesn’t mean it will get in. Teams can not be evaluated in a vacuum; there are so many factors that must be considered.
Nobody is better analyzing these factors and projecting the Tournament field than Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports. These two survey the entire country and use past committee selections to guide their predictions. They have turned NCAA Tournament field projections into a science: bracketology. They don’t care about who deserves a bid, per se, only which teams will be selected.
Lunardi’s latest bracket (updated March 6) has Iona as the sixth team “out,” meaning he thinks there are 42 teams ahead of Iona for the 37 available at-large spots. Could some of those teams stumble in their conference tournaments and weaken their candidacy? Yes, but it is just as likely that some of those spots will be “stolen” by teams that impress the committee over this final week or unexpectedly win their conference tournament.
Palm doesn’t have Iona in his field or in his “last four out.” He wrote on Twitter that Iona has “no real case” for an at-large bid. Yet when asked for dark horse teams he thought would make a surprising run in the NCAA Tournament, Palm wrote, “Iona and Middle Tennessee State. Oh, wait…” Palm likes the Gaels as a team, but doesn’t think the committee will view them favorably.
Of course, the committee has been known to deviate from its usual selection criteria and surprise even the experts. Palm wrote in an email that Southern California, which made the field last year, “wasn’t even on my board of teams to consider.” USC is from a power conference (jokes about the Pac-12 aside), but Virginia Commonwealth is another example from last season of a school considered to be a long-shot that received an invite.
The Ivy Model
Not all conferences operate like the MAAC, which played its tournament at a neutral site and—other than the obvious No. 1 seed—gave no real advantage to its top team. Other leagues play on the home court of the higher seeds or give the top teams byes to the semifinals. The Ivy League forgoes a tournament altogether, instead awarding its automatic bid to the regular season champ.
Fairfield’s first-year head coach Sydney Johnson, who coached at Princeton the four seasons prior, was asked during the pre-tournament conference call whether he was in favor of a conference tournament. “I liked the regular season champ going to the NCAA Tournament. I like that idea because you’re guaranteed to have your best team go. Iona has played really good basketball, so they’d be worthy.”
Many fans of mid-major schools feel the same way, and regard the conference tournament as a single-elimination maze the best team must navigate to earn the league’s automatic bid. A great season can result in an NIT bid with one poor performance (regular season champions that fail to win the league tournament are guaranteed a spot in the NIT).
But Johnson sees the value of postseason play. “The experience of the conference tournament is awesome. I coached at Georgetown and the Big East tournament was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of. The MAAC Tournament elevates the league. It’s covered by ESPN every single game. I think that’s a little bit better experience for the student athletes to add that conference tournament and I’m excited about it. It’s pretty special.”
There’s no denying the conference tournaments bring added attention to the league and offer great experiences for the athletes, who often get lost in the shuffle of big-time college sports. Tournament sites that host both the men and the women over the same weekend, as the MAAC’s does, provide the female student-athletes with a great environment they might not get anywhere else.
After schools play about 30 games in four months, making one win three games in three days to get the all-important Tournament bid can seem cruel. But that’s part of the madness of March.
It’s why the Iona players didn’t celebrate on the night of February 24, after they had defeated Fairfield to clinch its first regular season MAAC men’s basketball title since 2001. The seniors said it was important, but expected, and they had sights on a bigger goal: earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But when Iona couldn’t beat the Stags for a third time this season, the likelihood of achieving that goal shrunk significantly.
Such is life as a mid-major. This isn’t the Big East Tournament, where a half dozen teams are ranked in the Top 25. This isn’t the ACC, where three wins gets you a banner but not a satisfied fan base. This isn’t the Big Ten, where the top teams are playing for a better seed in the bigger tournament.
This is a conference, like so many others, where most teams don’t bother with the selection show—and those that do are often disappointed.