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March Madness betting, odds: Rick Pitino's Iona team could be a good tourney bet

Iona Gaels coach Rick Pitino (left) and his team are going to the NCAA tournament. (Photo: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports)
Iona Gaels coach Rick Pitino (left) and his team are going to the NCAA tournament. (Photo: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

If you watched Iona play, you might not realize the Gaels come from a one-bid league.

Iona is long and athletic. They play a pressure defense that can take over a game. The offense finds high-percentage shots. It's a good team.

And they have a Hall of Fame coach.

We can have a conversation about Iona being a potentially great bet in the NCAA tournament next week after the Gaels won the MAAC championship, beating Marist, 76-55, on Saturday night. They get the auto bid out of the MAAC. That means bigger programs looking to talk to coach Rick Pitino will have to wait at least another week.

Iona will be a double-digit seed, but a dangerous one.

Rick Pitino goes back to NCAA tournament

Last year, Iona had a very good team and tripped up in the MAAC tournament. Mid-major chasers were disappointed to not get the chance to bet on the Gaels as an underdog in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This season Iona got the job done. Marist made the championship game interesting in the second half, but Iona turned up the defense and pulled away for the blowout win. The Gaels overwhelmed Marist down the stretch, showing how good they can be.

Iona came into Saturday night's game projected as a No. 13 seed in most mock brackets. It's hard to see the Gaels getting up to the always dangerous No. 12 line, but that might just mean a bigger spread for a first-round matchup.

Iona has good players, including conference player of the year Walter Clayton Jr. and efficient guard Daniss Jenkins. But the headliner is Pitino. Pitino has two national titles (one if you follow the NCAA's lead and dismiss the vacated one at Louisville) and has won everywhere except with the Boston Celtics. Controversy follows Pitino and a scandal at Louisville is why he's in the MAAC.

But Pitino has been so good with Iona and enough time has passed that a bigger program might be ready to give him another shot. After Iona is done in the NCAA tournament, of course.

Iona had another strong season

Iona goes into the tournament at 27-7, and the Gaels went 17-3 in league play. They have won 14 in a row. Their last loss was Jan. 27. Iona has dominated its competition.

The problem with picking Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament is the Gaels haven't tested themselves against top competition. They've played four teams ranked in the top 100 at KenPom this season, none higher than 52nd, and went 1-3. Last season when the Gaels were 25-8 but didn't make the NCAA tournament, they did beat Alabama and gave Florida some trouble in an NIT loss.

Iona will need the right matchup, probably a team that doesn't take care of the ball. A high major with strong guards and a low turnover percentage could probably handle Iona's defense, which will guard all 94 feet.

No matter who Iona draws, Pitino will have the Gaels ready. They won't be overwhelmed athletically. It might be a team worth looking at for a first-round upset pick.