IONA GAELS (5-7, 1-1)
Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic
Head Coach: Kevin Willard (first season)
Game Time: 3 p.m.
Favorite: Louisville by 17
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 4-1
Last Meeting: Louisville won 88-75 in 1985
Best Win: Iona 92, Loyola (MD) 68 (Dec. 7)
It was an early season MAAC shocker when the then 1-6 Gaels humiliated the preseason conference favorites in New Rochelle.
Worst Loss: Princeton 66, Iona 58 (Nov. 14)
Losses to Robert Morris and South Carolina State appear worse on paper, but Sydney Johnson's first Princeton squad is a far cry from the seemingly fundamentally perfect Tiger teams we've all become accustomed to.
Louisville 84, Jackson State 53
Jackson State 74, Iona 70
Louisville 64, Old Dominion 53
Old Dominion 74, Iona 63
Probable Starting Lineup
G De'Shaune Griffin 7.3 ppg
G Rashon Dwight 7.8 ppg
G Milan Prodanovic 12.3 ppg
F Devon Clarke 9.8 ppg
F Dexter Gray 13.8 ppg
Long time Rick Pitino assistant Kevin Willard returns to Freedom Hall in his first season as head coach at Iona, a season in which he has already seen the Gaels more than double their win total of a year ago. As if it isn't bad enough having a guy sitting on the visiting bench who already knows virtually everything the home team is going to do, Willard's squad has had seven days to prepare for Louisville.
After a fairly predictable 0-6 start (Iona did, afterall, go 2-28 a year ago), the Gaels have won five of six, including a 24-point blowout of preseason conference favorite Loyola of Maryland on Dec. 7. Willard's team has gone on a roll mostly by doing the same things that Pitino's best squads over the year have done: playing staunch defense and doing a hefty load of running and gunning.
Willard has used several different starting lineups this season, so much so that no player has started more than nine games, but senior forward Dexter Gray is the team's most experienced player and its leading scorer at 13.8 ppg. He's led the Gaels in scoring seven times in 12 games, and missed double figures only once: a zero point performance against Siena in a game where he fouled out after playing a total of just 11 minutes. Though the St. John's transfer has highly respectable scoring and rebounding (5.7 rpg) stats, it may be his newfound dedication to defense that has been the greatest gift to this team.
"Coach came in and this is his rule," Gray said after Iona's big win over Western Michigan. "You don't play defense, you don't play. That's our main focus now. Play defense first and the offense comes second."
Joining Gray in the frontcourt is fellow senior Devon Clarke, a 6-6 slasher whose emergence has correlated directly with Iona's resurgence. He's hit double-figures in five straight games, and is averaging 12.4 ppg when the Gaels win, as opposed to 8.0 ppg when they lose. He likes to get to the rim for high percentage shots, and leads the MAAC in field goal percentage at 64.6%.
It's easy to say that it's a surprise to see such success coming from a group so accustomed to failure, but you forget that Gray, Clarke and a few reserves were with the program when it won a MAAC championship and played in the NCAA Tournament in 2006. At least a few these guys know what it feels like to win on the league's biggest stage, and that's something that Willard has to be thankful for.
Someone who wasn't around for Iona's 2006 conquest was sophomore guard Milan Prodanovic, who hasn't seen a shot inside of halfcourt that he didn't like. He's made 27 three-pointers in 12 games, and hasn't taken any less than four in a contest. He leads the team in playing time (32.7 mpg), and is second in scoring (12.3 ppg), but his biggest gift to the Gaels is his potential to radically alter the score of a game during any two-minute span.
Another big reason for Iona's recent success has been the return of preseason All-MAAC selection Gary Springer, who was forced to sit out the first seven games of the season with a high ankle sprain. The 6-foot-9 forward/center has been very productive in the four games since his return, averaging 9.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest. His presence off the bench will be huge against a team with a frontline like Louisville's.
This game is much like the one against Marshall in my eyes. If a guy like Prodanovic or reserve guard Kyle Camper is able to get hot from the outside, then it could open things up for Iona's skilled forwards, and the Gaels might very well have a fighting chance. But the biggest problem for the visitors - at is in a lot of these December games - is avoiding the big Cardinal run. If you can handle the traps for 40-minutes, if you can avoid the extended shooting droughts, and if you can keep the Freedom Hall crowd quiet, then you'll be right there at the end. Is this a team that can manage that? I certainly think it's possible.
The best description I've read of Kevin Willard's first Iona team came from Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins, who said: "What they're doing, what Kevin is doing, getting the kids to believe, is a wonderful story and a wonderful thing to see. He's a young guy who has come in and turned things around. It's so much fun to watch them...when you're not playing against them."
This is a team that believes it can beat anybody right now, and one you don't want to let get inspired.
CC Prediction: Louisville 81, Iona 68
Anxious moments early, couple of big runs, and on to the Big East.