As a traditional No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, BYU would have only a 15 percent chance of beating No. 3 Marquette in Thursday’s second-round meeting at Louisville, Ky.
Having to face Iona in the first round — not a play-in game, to be semantically correct — Tuesday at Dayton, Ohio, actually works in BYU’s favor.
The contest in the First Four, in front of the First Fan, should be fun. It gives the Cougars an opportunity to get going again after a long layoff since the West Coast Conference tournament. If they can beat Iona with President Barack Obama in the house, they will have generated some momentum.
The trade-off is a quick turnaround to Thursday afternoon’s game, but the travel is easy. Louisville is only 150 miles from Dayton. So while the coaching staff would face an all-night scouting session, the players would have a reasonable chance to recover — almost like a standard Thursday-Saturday assignment in the NCAA Tournament, plus the bus ride.
With only one year of historical evidence, there’s some suggestion that appearing in the first round helps more than it hurts. When the field grew to 68 teams last March, No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 12 Clemson won in Dayton. VCU then blasted No. 6 Georgetown and went all the way to the Final Four. Clemson lost by eight points to No. 5 West Virginia in the second round after being tied at halftime.
So the extra game in itself should not bother BYU, in terms of advancing in the tournament. If anything, it gives the Cougars a good shot at a fourth NCAA victory in three seasons. Merely being invited to the tournament for a sixth straight year, especially in the post-Jimmer era, is a credit to coach Dave Rose’s program.
BYU’s challenge, beyond dealing with Iona’s high-powered offense, would be having to play a No. 3 seed — which, coincidentally, was the Cougars’ status last March. The machinations involved with avoiding Sunday play and potential meetings with other WCC teams dropped BYU from a deserved No. 12 seed to No. 14.
Since the tournament was expanded in 1985, No. 14 seeds are 16-92 against No. 3 seeds. Weber State claims two of those upsets, having beaten Michigan State and North Carolina under coach Ron Abegglen in the 1990s. Yet the Cougars would have a reasonable shot at Marquette, while feeling good about themselves after beating Iona.
Iona is an exciting, intriguing team, with some Utah ties. Senior forward Mike Glover, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, spent the 2009-10 season in Price, starring for the school then known as the College of Eastern Utah. Guard Lamont Jones transferred from Arizona, after having played against BYU in December 2010 at EnergySolutions Arena.
Jones produced all of his 20 points in the second half of that loss to the Cougars, in a 7-of-11 shooting performance that serves as a good illustration of Iona’s explosive ability. The Gaels lead the country in scoring (83.3) and have some outstanding New York-area talent. The No. 3 scorer is point guard Scott Machado, who will provide a tough matchup for BYU freshman Matt Carlino.
Of course, there’s a reason Iona barely made the NCAA field. The Gaels were vulnerable enough defensively to lose to Fairfield in the semifinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and their most impressive nonconference win was a 90-84 defeat of Nevada.
So BYU certainly is capable of outscoring Iona, if the Cougars’ shooters are on their games. Iona’s BracketBuster game with Nevada offers a good forecast of Tuesday’s contest. The Gaels had to shoot 62 percent from the field to win at home.
Anything less than that level of accuracy from Iona will give BYU a chance to advance.