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Preview: Iona

A chance to get one strong performance in before heading home.

NCAA Basketball: ESPN Events Invitational-Iona vs. Belmont Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

The ESPN Events Invitational hasn’t been particularly kind to Kansas. After the Jayhawks sleepwalked through a 12-point win over a North Texas team that couldn’t hit threes, Kansas built up a similar type of lead over Dayton, only to suffer the season’s first loss when the Flyers stormed back in a way UNT couldn’t. Today, they take on another mid-major in the Iona Gaels, coached by none other than Rick Pitino.

Most fans expected to be playing in the Invitational’s Final against Alabama today. Obviously part of the reason they aren’t is the loss to Dayton, but another reason is that this Iona team took ‘Bama out of the winners’ bracket on Thursday. They then faced Belmont Friday to try to earn a spot in the final, but fell to the Bruins 72-65.

This is a chance for Kansas to try and make a statement about their lackluster play in their first two games, but we’ll see. Iona is not on KU’s level, but they’re still probably the favorites to make the NCAA Tournament field of the Metro Atlantic, so they aren’t a horrible team, either. The team is ranked 125th by KenPom and 97th by Bart Torvik (the two ratings systems also have KU 4th and 9th respectively).

The Gales started the season 6-0 before the Belmont loss, with wins over four teams ranked in the mid-100s by Pomeroy, and a 16-point beating of a 306th ranked North Alabama team. But having beaten Alabama by four and lost to Belmont by just seven, the Invitation has the team battle-tested to where they won’t be intimidated by the Jayhawks.

The Gaels don’t shoot often, or particularly well, from three. They’ve hit just 30.5% while taking under 35% of their shots from behind the line. Their offense has been their worst side of the court by far, as they also make just 47.6% of their twos, which ranks 220th in Division One. Their turnover rate is close to average, as is their offensive rebounding, but the one of the Four Factors where they stand out is getting to the line. They rank 20th in free throw rate, and hit a respectable 70.5% when they get to the line.

Defensively, they rank highly in shooting percentage allowed, but that’s likely bolstered by some early 3-point luck as their opponents have clanked their way to a 25.3% shooting percentage behind the line. Still, their block rate of 18.3% is elite, and they have the size to bother David McCormack down low, not that he needs much help feeling uncomfortable right now. Fortunately, some of that is balanced out by the fact that they don’t force many turnovers, so hopefully Kansas can work on getting more comfortable running their offensive sets and generating good looks.

Players to Watch

Nelly Junior Joseph, sophomore center

Junior Joseph is a big reason for Iona’s impressive block numbers, with an outstanding block rate of 7.1%. Sometimes a mid major will rack up blocks against bad competition even while lacking height, but that isn’t the case with Iona. Junior Joseph is 6’9, 240 pounds, and likely won’t be moved around easily by McCormack in the post, and may be able to rotate over and cause some issues when Kansas guards try to get into the paint. He’s also an excellent offensive rebounder, and has scored double digit points in every game so far this season.

Tyson Jolly, senior guard

If you’re a fan who’s always watching to see which random mid-major player is going to hit six threes against their team, Jolly is probably your leading candidate. After playing his freshman year at Baylor, he transferred to SMU for his next two years, now landing at Iona as a graduate transfer. For his career he’s shot 37.2% from three on 191 attempts, and is 8-17 (47.1%) so far this year. Fortunately, though he’s played 30+ minutes in all but one game so far, he’s not a volume shooter from outside and may only take a few even if he makes them.

Quinn Slazinski, junior forward/center

Slazinski, like Nelly Junior Joseph, is 6’9” but is a more versatile and less traditional big man. The Louisville transfer is capable of stepping out to the three point line where he’s hitting around 35% this year, though he’s still just a 29.1% shooter for his career. Slazinski gets to the free throw line at a respectable rate and is third on the team in shots taken, but hasn’t quite lit up the scoreboard, having been held to single digits in three games and never having scored 20 in a game in his career. Still, he’s a big enough part of the team’s offense to keep an eye on him, and his height and block rate will be a factor defensively as well.

Prediction

Kansas failed to cover the spread in either of their first two games in Orlando, and they come into this one favored by 13.5. Iona plays good defense, with respectable size and rebounding. I can see McCormack struggling to break out of his slump in this one, but I do think the day off to think about Friday’s loss could help get the team going as a whole. Iona plays at a somewhat quick pace, and that should favor Kansas because the Gaels won’t be able to run with them if this becomes an up-tempo game. Despite the recent struggles, I like the Jayhawks to (barely) cover. Kansas 78, Iona 63

Record straight-up: 4-0 (didn’t get a pick in for the Dayton game!)

Record ATS: 3-1