ALBANY — Iona is walking into MVP Arena with its eyes wide open.
It understands the challenge.
It knows how difficult an upset will be.
It hasn’t seen anything like Connecticut, Friday afternoon’s West Region opening-round opponent.
“We know there’s a small margin of error for us in this game,” said starting guard Daniss Jenkins, the MAAC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “We have to almost play perfect.”
As Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino said Thursday, Connecticut isn’t a typical four-seed.
It has national-championship potential.
It owns wins over the overall No. 1 seed, Alabama, and Big East regular-season and tournament champion Marquette.
It is one of four teams in the country ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
“We’re going to have to play great,” Pitino said, “to beat them.”
Added Jenkins: “We love this challenge. In life, they throw all types of challenges at you, so you just have to be ready. You got to want this challenge.”
The Huskies (25-8) may actually be under-seeded.
But, Pitino also noted, his team is pretty good, too.
The 13th-seeded Gaels enter the tournament having won 14 straight games, 11 by double figures.
They won their three MAAC Tournament games by a combined 53 points and played the 60th-ranked non-conference schedule in the country — facing CAA regular-season champion Hofstra, America East winner Vermont, and quality Atlantic 10 programs St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis.
Pitino’s team survived key injuries to starting power forward Quinn Slazinski (out for the season), leading scorer Walter Clayton Jr. and starting guard Berrick JeanLouis.
It didn’t deter the Gaels.
They got better as the season progressed and have their most wins (27) since the 1997-98 season.
“These guys didn’t let it stop them. They just kept winning, and the next-man-up mentality helped us,” Pitino said. “Through all that adversity, they only got stronger as a basketball team.”
Crazy upsets are a staple of this month.
It was a MAAC program, Saint Peter’s, that was the darling of last year’s tournament, pulling off three major stunners to become the first 15th seed ever to reach the Elite Eight.
For Iona (27-7) to follow in the Peacocks’ footsteps, it will need to hold its own in the paint against bigger, deeper and more athletic UConn.
The Huskies, led by physical big men Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, are the No. 1 team in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (38.0).
They pound their opponents on the glass, ranked second nationally in rebounding margin at plus-nine.
“I have the confidence to play against any competition,” said junior forward Nelly Junior Joseph — the anchor to Iona’s frontcourt who is averaging 15.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
“We just have to play hard and get them off the backboard as much as possible.”
When the season began, Iona had several team goals.
One was winning the MAAC regular-season title.
Another was winning the postseason tournament.
But it didn’t end there.
The Gaels wanted to win the school’s first NCAA Tournament game, too.
This will be Iona’s 16th NCAA Tournament, and the lone win (in 1980) was vacated due to NCAA violations.
Friday afternoon will be another chance to get on the board.
“The excitement level is through the roof,” JeanLouis said. “We’re ready to play and show everybody what we can do. It’s March.”
Three keys to victory
A look at what 13th-seeded Iona needs to do to upset fourth-seeded Connecticut on Friday.
Protect the defensive glass
Iona’s focus all week has been gang rebounding, trying to limit Connecticut’s second-chance opportunities.
It’s easier said than done, of course.
The physical Huskies lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.0.
The Gaels, meanwhile, are 260th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage at 71.7 percent.
This area of the matchup feels like a mismatch.
UConn has lost as the higher seed in the last two NCAA Tournaments.
Under coach Dan Hurley, the Huskies have yet to have a breakthrough March.
If Iona can hang around deep into the second half, Connecticut could get tight, and think back to past March failures.
Keep Nelly on the floor
Iona forward Nelly Junior Joseph has to stay out of foul trouble.
Coach Rick Pitino doesn’t really have another option to deal with Connecticut’s size inside other than the 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior.
Fellow starter Osborn Shema is tall at 7-foot, but lacks the strength needed to handle Huskies duo Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, who average a combined 23.9 points and 13.0 rebounds per game.