Iona vs UConn Odds, Picks: Can Gaels Pull Off Shocker?
Getty Images. Design by Matt Roembke/Action Network. Pictured from left: Adama Sanogo on UConn and Walter Clayton Jr. on Iona.
Iona vs UConn Odds
-110o / -110u
-110o / -110u
If the rumors of Rick Pitino’s imminent return to the Big East weren’t swirling enough, the NCAA tournament selection committee did Pitino and fans a favor — his Iona Gaels will get a taste of the Big East on Friday in a matchup with the UConn Huskies.
A loss for the Gaels likely puts a bow on the Pitino era at Iona, following two MAAC championships and subsequent NCAA tournament appearances in three years.
His success at the small, New York-area school clearly opened eyes, with St. John’s rumored to be pouncing to hire Pitino when his season ends.
Let’s not put the cart before the horse, though. This Iona team is absolutely a threat to win Friday, even against a UConn team that appears underseeded.
The Pitino storyline made this one of the premier games of the first round, but it’s Iona’s ability to make this a game in crunch time that should have your attention.
There is absolutely more substance to Iona than simply employing a coach you’ve heard of before. The Gaels are a top-75 team, per KenPom, and have some impressive wins.
A 22-point drubbing of a Saint Louis team that stumbled all season and missed the tournament might not be the kind of win that is going to have UConn fans shaking in their boots, but it’s quality victories over solid mid-major teams like that which define this Iona season.
Iona hasn’t lost a game in February or March and the Gaels’ last 11 games are double-digit victories.
Pitino is running a familiar playbook. The Gaels play pressure man-to-man defense, often extending into full-court pressure. Iona’s opponents have shot just 29.2% from outside the arc this season, eighth-worst in college hoops.
Some of that stat comes from playing in the poor-shooting MAAC (24th-best 3-point% of the 32 conferences) or some good fortune, but a lot of credit goes to Iona’s ability to swarm to shooters and close out effectively.
Iona pushes the pace offensively, yet it’s so stingy defensively that there is a massive difference in its offensive and defensive possession times.
The average Iona possession on offense is the 28th-shortest — with Pitino encouraging transition looks — but the Gaels’ average defensive possession is third-longest in the nation.
Teams have to work to find a look at the rim against this team.
Offensively, Iona relies on its backcourt — Walter Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins — to create off the dribble.
Nelly Junior Joseph has long been one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball, earning extra possessions for the Gaels.
Using this week to put UConn’s season into perspective only makes the Huskies seem more dangerous in this tournament.
Connecticut has eight losses this season. The Huskies dropped road games against the other four tournament-quality Big East teams.
They got blitzed at home by Xavier — when the Musketeers shot 50% from 3 — and even then, UConn nearly battled back from a 17-point deficit to win that night.
Marquette beat UConn at Madison Square Garden in an absolute coin-flip contest in the Big East Tournament.
That leaves two more losses. The first is a one-point loss at Seton Hall, in which UConn blew a 17-point lead of its own. It’s not ideal, but on the road against a conference foe, it’s not a damning enough loss to leave scar tissue.
UConn’s other loss though, came at home by a large margin to a pretty mediocre St. John’s team. That one is harder to explain away and felt even harder at the time because it was followed by the Seton Hall game.
Stepping back now, everything feels explainable, on paper.
On the other hand, what were the actual on-court issues that led this team, seemingly one of the nation’s best, to lose six out of eight games midseason?
If you have worries about UConn, they boil down to Danny Hurley figuring out the right lineup, a “good problem to have” that has merits as an actual issue.
The Huskies’ two highest-usage players are centers, Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, who can’t play together. Figuring out which of those two to play, with the right mix of wings and guards, is easier said than done.
Lastly, if there’s one legitimately scary thing, especially entering a single elimination tournament, it’s UConn’s penchant for fouling. The Huskies allowed their opponents a higher share of their points than all but seven teams in the country.
With the wrong set of zebras working a game, UConn’s physicality could bite the Huskies in March.
Iona vs. UConn Betting Pick
Any Cinderella case usually comes down to three facets: shooting, size and a scheme.
Iona doesn’t shoot a ton of 3s, but the Gaels make them at a good enough clip to think they could get hot against UConn.
Critically, unlike plenty of would-be-Cinderellas that can hold their own everywhere but the paint, Iona has the big men to at least survive on the glass and on the interior.
No one has the answer for Hurley’s rotation of giants — Sanogo and Clingan — yet for a mid-major, Iona is well suited. Pitino boasts a 7-footer, Osborn Shema, plus Joseph who plays beyond his size.
Lastly, most Cinderellas find a special schematic advantage to pick on throughout a game. Iona’s high-pressure defense could be that.
It’s fitting that the St. John’s team that could soon be under Pitino’s tutelage was also the Big East team that created UConn’s most surprising loss. The Red Storm’s constant nagging defense led to 21 turnovers and is the blueprint for Iona.
I’m not sure there’s enough magic here for an outright win, but I’m intrigued by the Gaels’ case against the spread. I’d like it more at 10.5, but if the number sticks at 9.5, I’m leaning Iona.
Pick: Iona +9.5
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