NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Call it a MAAC miracle!
Iona, which won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title but stumbled in the league semifinals, was given a bid into the NCAA tournament, and will meet BYU in the first round on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
The Gaels went 25-7, and 15-3 in the league, but lost to Fairfield, 85-75, in the conference tournament on March 4, in a defeat that many viewed as crippling for their tournament hopes.
Yet, in a surprise – perhaps the biggest in the field – Iona did land a bid, and joins tournament-champion Loyola, Md., as MAAC teams in the NCAA.
“I think we were hopeful. But we knew it was going to be a tough decision, and we’re just unbelievably excited to get in,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said in a conference call Sunday. “It’s beyond words. When I saw the excitement in my players’ eyes I couldn’t have been happier.”
BYU finished in third place in the West Coast Conference after a 12-4 league season. The Cougars are 25-8 overall.
Tuesday’s winner will play Marquette in the second round.
In an ironic twist, Iona is one of the bubble teams that made it, and very well could have taken a bid away from Seton Hall, among the more notable snubs. Just two years ago, Seton Hall, of the Big East, hired coach Kevin Willard away from Iona.
But Willard left a decent team to Cluess in New Rochelle, and he took it from there. The Gaels last made the tournament in 2006, losing to LSU, 80-74, in the first round. At the time, they were coached by Jeff Ruland.
But now, it’s Cluess’ team, and his focus is squarely on the Cougars.
“It’s a phenomenal statement for our conference that people are recognizing we’re getting better,” said Cluess. “If you go out and you play a tough schedule, you have a chance to be rewarded for it. That’s a message for every mid major.”
Cluess admitted that he was intrigued by BYU last year, when Iona was not in the NCAA, and the Cougars – led by guard Jimmer Fredette – were.
“I was a big fan last year and the year before,” he said. “This year, I won’t be quite as big a fan.”
BYU advanced to the round of 16 last year with Fredette, the national player of the year. The Cougars no longer have Fredette, but they do have 6-9 junior forward Brandon Davies back. He missed March Madness last year after being booted from the team for an honor code violation.
“We deserve to be in the NCAAs,” BYU senior Noah Hartsock said. “I’m glad with the spot we have. You saw a lot of teams that were left out, a lot of disappointed teams. We’re glad to be in.”
So, too, is Iona.
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