ALBANY — Iona walks into MVP Arena with her eyes wide open.
He understands the challenge.
He knows how difficult a surprise will be.
He’s seen nothing like Connecticut, the West Region’s first-round opponent on Friday afternoon.
“We know there’s a small margin of error for us in this game,” said starting goaltender Daniss Jenkins, MAAC Tournament MVP. “We have to play almost perfectly.”
As Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino said Thursday, Connecticut isn’t a typical four-seeded seed.
He has national championship potential.
He owns wins over No. 1 seed Alabama and Big East regular season and tournament champion Marquette.
It is one of four teams in the country ranked in the top 20 in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency.
“We’re going to have to play well,” Pitino said, “to beat them.”
Jenkins added: “We love this challenge. In life, they throw all kinds of challenges at you, so you just have to be ready. You must want this challenge.
The Huskies (25-8) may actually be underseeded.
But, Pitino also noted, his team is also very good.
The 13th-seeded Gaels come into the tournament having won 14 straight games, 11 by double digits.
They won their three MAAC Tournament games by a total of 53 points and played in the nation’s 60th non-conference schedule – facing CAA regular season champion Hofstra, America East winner Vermont, and quality programs at Atlantic 10, St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis. .
Pitino’s team survived major injuries to starting forward Quinn Slazinski (out for the season), leading scorer Walter Clayton Jr. and starting guard Berrick JeanLouis.
This did not deter the Gaels.
They improved as the season progressed and won their most wins (27) since the 1997-98 season.
“These guys didn’t let themselves be stopped. They just kept winning and the next man mentality helped us,” Pitino said. “Through all of this adversity, they’ve only gotten stronger as a basketball team.”
Crazy upheavals are a staple this month.
It was a MAAC program, Saint Peter’s, that was the darling of last year’s tournament, pulling off three major feats to become the first 15th seed to reach the Elite Eight.
For Iona (27-7) to follow in the Peacocks’ footsteps, she’ll need to hold her own in the paint against bigger, deeper and more athletic UConn.
The Huskies, led by physical big men Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, are the nation’s top team in offensive rebound percentage (38.0).
They smash their opponents on the glass, ranked second nationally in rebound margin at plus-nine.
“I have the confidence to play against any competition,” said junior forward Nelly Junior Joseph – Iona’s frontcourt anchor who is averaging 15.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
“We just have to play hard and get them off the backboard as much as possible.”
At the start of the season, Iona had several team goals.
One was winning the MAAC regular season title.
Another was winning the post-season tournament.
But it didn’t stop there.
The Gaels also wanted to win the school’s NCAA Tournament opener.
This will be Iona’s 16th NCAA tournament, and the lone win (in 1980) was vacated due to NCAA violations.
Friday afternoon will be another chance to get on set.
“The level of excitement is through the roof,” JeanLouis said. “We are ready to play and show everyone what we can do. It’s March.
Three keys to victory
A look at what 13th-seeded Iona has to do to upset fourth-seeded Connecticut on Friday.
Protect defensive glass
Iona has been focused all week on the gang rebound, trying to limit Connecticut’s second-chance opportunities.
That’s easier said than done, of course.
The physical Huskies lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 38.0.
The Gaels, meanwhile, are 260th nationally in defensive rebound percentage at 71.7%.
This area of the match looks like a lag.
UConn has lost as the top seed in the last two NCAA tournaments.
Under coach Dan Hurley, the Huskies are yet to make a breakthrough in March.
If Iona can drag deep in the second half, Connecticut could get tight and rethink past March failures.
Keep Nelly on the floor
Iona striker Nelly Junior Joseph must avoid fouls.
Coach Rick Pitino doesn’t really have any other option to deal with Connecticut’s size inside than the 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior.
Fellow starter Osborn Shema is 7 feet tall but lacks the strength to handle Huskies duo Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, who are averaging 23.9 points and 13.0 rebounds per game.