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Iona hopes it's ready to spring MAAC attack

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams are usually one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, a fact not lost on Iona College.

But the No. 13-seeded Gaels, back in the Big Dance for the first time in five seasons, hope to reverse the trend when they play No. 4 LSU (23-8) in the first round at 7:10 tonight at Veterans Memorial Arena.

"The bridge is closing between major and mid-major schools," said Iona guard Steve Burtt. "In recent years kids are more talented, not that they weren't before, but kids are much more talented coming out of the mid-major schools. Major schools underestimate that and that's why you have more upsets."

But since receiving an automatic bid in 1984, the MAAC is just 4-23 in the NCAAs. The MAAC's last win was in 2004 when 12th-seeded Manhattan upset fifth seed Florida, 75-60, in the first round then gave No. 4 seed Wake Forest a scare before losing, 84-80.

Iona last played in the tournament in 2001 as a No. 14 seed when it nearly knocked off third-seeded Mississippi, 72-70. This year, the Gaels have some of the tools needed to pull off a stunner, starting with senior guards Burtt (25.2 ppg.), Ricky Soliver (16.2), and Marvin McCullough (7.6 apg.). Few mid-major teams, if any, have a better collection of guards than Iona (23-7).

"This is the best situation to be in because we have nothing to lose," Burtt said. "If we lose, people will say, 'I told you so,' but if we win, great things can happen."

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It will be an emotional time tonight for South Alabama coach and former Florida assistant John Pelphrey when he faces Billy Donovan, his mentor and close friend.

Donovan was an assistant under Rick Pitino when Pelphrey played at Kentucky and when Donovan moved on to Marshall in 1994, he hired Pelphrey. Donovan took Pelphrey with him when he went to Florida in 1996.

"Outside my father, he's probably the most influential male in my life," said Pelphrey, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ann-Marie Grace Donovan, is named for Donovan. "He's a special, special guy."

And Pelphrey learned his deft recruiting touch from Donovan while at Marshall.

"I had no idea about recruiting," Pelphrey said. "I had a desk, a phone and a legal pad and a pen and I was like, 'Well, what do I do now?' I went into his office and sat there for the next three months. I look back on that now and I thinking this guy must have had incredible patience. I know I had to drive him nuts."

Pelphrey learned his lessons well. At Florida, he was instrumental in the recruitment of Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson, the nucleus of the squad that was runner-up to Michigan State in the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

***

Wisconsin-Milwaukee has perhaps the most experienced team in the field with seven seniors. Five seniors have a combined 365 starts and 6-foot-7 forward Adrian Tigert has started 117 games, including a stretch of 88 consecutive.

That's one of the reasons why many are picking the 11th-seeded Panthers to knock off No. 6 seed Oklahoma in the first round.

But while thumbing through the Sooners' media guide, Milwaukee first-year coach Rob Jeter noticed Oklahoma's coaching staff has 65 years of head coaching experience.

"You know how much experience we have?" Jeter asked. "Eleven months."

Jeter was 12 years old when Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson started his career in 1981 at Montana Tech.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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