March is finally here, and after just one day, 95% of brackets across the country are busted (mine was done after the first game of the Tournament, no thanks to Louisville). Upsets have occurred, we’ve all watched 40 minutes of a team we were only vaguely aware existed before this tournament started, and now, tonight, we finally get to see our beloved Tar Heels take part in this, the best 2-day stretch in sports.
They’ll start out against MAAC regular season and tournament champions Iona, who will travel to Columbus from New York. After a shaky start to the season that left them at 7-15 on the season and 5-6 in their conference, the Gaels have won 10 straight, which propelled them to the NCAA Tournament. Purely in terms of momentum, there may not be a hotter team in the tournament.
Some background: Iona is coached by Tim Cluess, who has been there since 2010, and, despite it being his first D1 job (some time before that, he coached Danny Green in high school), he’s been getting pretty consistent results in the MAAC during that tenure: He’s never finished worse than 4th in the conference, and he’s made the NCAA Tournament 6 out of his 9 seasons at Iona. He hasn’t won a game in the tournament yet, but he consistently has quality teams. He took home the conference’s Coach of the Year award this year after that mid-season turnaround, and he’s generally pretty well-respected at his level. He’s never played UNC in that time; the last time the two teams met was back in 2007, which I remember solely for this Tyler Hansbrough dunk:
And before that, Iona pulled off an upset against UNC at Madison Square Garden during the season that preceded Roy Williams coming to Chapel Hill. UNC’s apparently beaten Iona two other times in the two programs’ history, but those are the two we might remember.
A hallmark of Cluess’ teams the last couple of years has been that they love to run and they love to shoot: They’ve been around 50th-60th in the country in Kenpom’s Adjusted Tempo rating, and been near the top of the country in three-point attempts, makes, and percentage. This year’s team isn’t quite like that. They like to run, even more than those teams, ranking 48th in tempo, but their shooting prowess isn’t really where the last two teams’ was. Shooting 35% (36.5% in conference) from deep isn’t bad by any means, and it’s certainly in the realm of “able to heat up for one game and give you trouble when they shouldn’t be doing so otherwise” (Minnesota, anybody?), but it’s not the kind of percentage that can sustain a team if the long ball is its primary weapon. Instead, this team relies on penetration more than recent Iona teams have, and with two experienced guards, junior E.J. Crawford and senior point guard Rickey McGill, leading the charge, they know what they’re doing. Both, particularly McGill, create a ton of offense at the rim: over 50% of Crawford’s field goal attempts are around the rim and just under 30% of his makes in that area are assisted, and McGill is close behind with 43% of his attempts around the rim and just 19% of his made close attempts being assisted (that’s 16 assisted layups/dunks for the whole season!). Stopping dribble penetration, something that has been a UNC Achilles heel seemingly forever, will be paramount in this matchup. The rest of the team also gets to the cup fairly regularly, though they aren’t as effective as the lead guards at it, nor do they, besides big man Tajuan Agee, have near the volume of close attempts as they do.
That doesn’t mean they don’t shoot. They still rank 82nd in the country in three-pointers attempted and 59th in percentage of field goal attempts that are threes, and they have a couple of very dangerous shooters. Crawford, the team’s leader in scoring with 18 points per game, is a 39% shooter from deep on 4 attempts per game, and joining him is guard Ben Perez, the team’s leader in 3PT% at just over 40% on the season on about the same volume. Finishing the 4-out starting lineup is Asante Gist, who’s the most trigger-happy of the bunch with 5.5 attempts per game, and he shoots about 35%. Agee isn’t afraid to let it fly, either; he’s a 33% shooter on 3 attempts per game. McGill is the lone real liability, hovering around 30% on the season (it’s worth noting he hasn’t been afraid to shoot, either). He facilitates for them really well, though; he averages better than 5 assists per game and 83% of Iona’s threes are assisted. It’s worth noting that all of these guys save for Agee have improved dramatically in conference play and Iona as a team was 36.5% from distance in MAAC play, but even though that might show comfort as the season went on, the MAAC isn’t exactly consistently tough competition compared to a non-conference schedule that included Yale, VCU, Ohio, and Providence, and ranked a respectable 138th in the country.
So far, we’ve focused basically exclusively on the starters’ offense, and that’s because that’s basically all Iona relies on to win games. They don’t go very deep; since 6th man Isaiah Still went down with a concussion, no bench player for the Gaels plays more than 16 minutes per game. Freshman 6’11 big man Andrija Ristanovic is the new sixth man, playing 15 minutes per game in conference, but he doesn’t affect the stat sheet too much. Two other subs play about 10 minutes per game and also average 3 points or less for the Gaels. Iona also isn’t exactly known for defense, preferring to outrun and outscore their opponents. They’ve allowed opponents to shoot 50% from two, 37% from three, and are overall 275th in opponent-adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They don’t rebound particularly well; Agee is respectable on the glass but he’s just one player and his teammates are only adequate. The guards’ rebounding numbers look pretty good, but that’s just because they’re the only players available: rate-wise, they’re fairly average.
A team with lesser talent that likes to run, doesn’t play very good defense, and isn’t good on the boards would seem to play right into UNC’s strengths, and that is the general opinion. UNC is favored in this matchup by 23 points. But, all that said, a team that lives on dribble penetration and has shooters capable of getting lights out should give any seasoned UNC fan pause. In the end, though, UNC’s talent, experience, and matchup ability should win out here as the Tar Heels head on to round two, but not before a longer-than-expected stretch of game that is uncomfortably close. With the tempo these teams play at, though, I’ll take UNC to cover.
Prediction: UNC 90, Iona 62