First-round action of the 74th annual NCAA Tournament gets underway tonight, as the Iona Gaels and the BYU Cougars clash at University of Dayton Arena.
The Cougars, who now hail from the West Coast Conference after spending time as a dominating program in the Mountain West Conference, finished third in the WCC standings behind Saint Mary's-CA and Gonzaga, both of which were invited to the tourney as well. Labeled as the 14th seed in the West Region, the Cougars delivered an overall record of 25-8 this year and, after beating San Diego in the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament, were defeated by Gonzaga on March 3 by a score of 77-58.
BYU is making its 27th appearance in this event overall, sporting a 14-29 record over the years, with the team logging a mark of just 9-17 in their opening-round games.
The Gaels, who are appearing in the tournament for the first time since 2006 and the ninth time overall, have won just a single game in the event but history just might be on their side. For just the second time in the history of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference a member institution has earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament without being the league's automatic qualifier. The first time it happened was in 1995 when Manhattan earned a spot in the field and subsequently knocked off fourth-seeded Oklahoma by double digits before bowing to Arizona State in the second round.
This year the Gaels posted an overall record of 25-7 as they defeated Marist in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament, 87-63, but then bowed to Fairfield, 85-75, in a stunner during the semifinals.
The winner of this first-ever matchup will challenge third-seeded Marquette in the second round on Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
Pro scouts flocked to Iona games this season to check out the talent, specifically Scott Machado and Mike Glover who were the driving forces behind the squad's success. A top-15 finalist for the Wooden Award and an All-MAAC First-Team selection, Machado was an assist machine for the Gaels this season, becoming the first player in the NCAA since 1993 to have at least 300 dishes in a single campaign, his 317 over the course of 32 games giving him an average of 9.9 per game. Not only does he hold the school and MAAC record for all-time assists (870), Machado also managed to put up 13.6 ppg this season and is now 10th on the school's all-time scoring list (1,598 point) as well. Glover, an All-MAAC First-Team choice for the second straight year, finished second in the conference in both scoring (18.1 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) during the regular season, his remarkable 64.7 percent shooting from the floor second-best in the NCAA. Not to be overlooked is Lamont Jones who placed second on the team with 16.0 ppg and was responsible for 95 assists of his own.
Back on the hardwood this season after being released from the BYU program late in 2010-11, Brandon Davies has responded quite well by scoring in double figures in 27 games and starting all 33 outings for the Cougars in 2011-12. Davies led the WCC in scoring with 18.0 ppg and was fourth in rebounding with 8.1 rpg, producing seven double-doubles along the way. Recently reaching 1,000 points for his career, Davies joined fellow forward Noah Hartsock on that list, the latter ranked 29th in school history with 1,153 points after leading the Cougars overall in scoring this year with his 16.7 ppg. Hartsock, who was also first on the unit with 52 blocked shots, connected on 56.5 percent of his field goal attempts and was third on the unit with 5.2 rpg. Giving the squad a huge and somewhat unexpected lift was Matt Carlino who averaged 12.7 ppg and handed out 109 assists over the course of 23 appearances. While he'll never replace Jimmer Fredette, Carlino became just the fourth BYU freshman to score 30 points in a game, doing the deed against San Francisco on Feb. 16.