PITTSBURGH — As he prepares his players to face astronomical odds, as they will when they open the NCAA Tournament Thursday against Duke, Iona coach Tim Cluess offers only one piece of advice: “Don’t die wondering.”
Expanding, he added, “Don’t die wondering what would have been if you played as hard as you could. So go out there and let it all hang out.” No matter how it works out — and it is extremely likely that it will be a comfortable win for Duke, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region — Cluess insists that his Gaels will have gained a whole lot from the experience.
A sense of achievement is what he always wants for his guys. He plans it every day as he commutes from his Long Island home to the New Rochelle campus. And it is what he feels in his own heart whenever he brings Iona to March Madness, which he now has done five times.
“For me, personally, it keeps my brothers alive,” he said, referring to Greg and Kevin, who both died of cancer after having lived for basketball. “They, and my parents, are the reason I got into basketball and with the losses I’ve had, basketball saved my life. And I do believe God put me here to coach, to help other people have better lives.
“A lot of these players come from nothing. So that’s where my pride comes, my joy comes. Watching them have better lives and be able to prove, ‘See? You work hard, something good happens,’ ” he said before leading the No. 15 seed in practice at PPG Paints Arena.
He is not trying to fool his players. They all know that Duke has perhaps the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft in Marvin Bagley III as well as a handful of other potential first-rounders. Cluess merely will remind the Gaels that they played a solid game against St. John’s (his brothers’ alma mater) and that St. John’s beat Duke. And he will implore them to give everything they’ve got.
Reality, though, says that Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils are much bigger and are determined to gain from this experience, too. “Coach is arguably the greatest coach that ever coached,” Bagley said. “Being able to be a part of something so special with him leading the way is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Duke senior Grayson Allen, who pointed out he took a course with former Iona coach Jerry Welsh, said, “We understand the basketball tradition they have there. They’re not just a team that’s lucky to be here.”
Krzyzewski recalled his years as Army coach, having (unsuccessfully) sent his 6-4 center Gary Winton up against Iona great Jeff Ruland. “For a program, a smaller school, they have such a rich basketball tradition,” Krzyzewski said.
Iona would love to feel as rich as Cinderella, for a day. “Duke is a legendary team,” Gaels guard Schadrac Casimir said. “I like the opportunity to see where we stand against one of the best teams in the country.”
Bagley enjoys NBA genes.Bagley has his own family distinction. He is the grandson of Joe Caldwell, a former All-Star in the NBA and ABA. “My grandpa tells me stuff and I’ve seen some highlights of him playing against many of the greats that ever played the game,” the freshman big man said. “It’s pretty cool to see because I’m not used to seeing him run the floor and score points like he was doing back then. I’m just trying to soak that in, just learn from him in anything I can.”
THURSDAY’S TV SCHEDULE
Oklahoma vs. Rhode Island, Ch. 2, 12:15 p.m.
Penn vs. Kansas, TBS, 2 p.m.
Iona vs. Duke, Ch. 2, 2:45 p.m.
N.C. State vs. Seton Hall, TBS, 4:30 p.m.
Wright State vs. Tennessee, TruTV, 12:40 p.m.
Loyola-Chicago vs. Miami, TruTV, 3:10 p.m.
Davidson vs. Kentucky, Ch. 2, 7:10 p.m.
Buffalo vs. Arizona, Ch. 2, 9:40 p.m.
UNC-Greensboro vs. Gonzaga, TNT, 1:30 p.m.
South Dakota State vs. Ohio State, TNT, 4 p.m.
San Diego State vs. Houston, TBS, 7:20 p.m.
Montana vs. Michigan, TBS, 9:50 p.m.
Radford vs. Villanova, TNT, 6:50 p.m.
Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, TNT, 9:20 p.m.
Stephen F. Austin vs. Texas Tech, TruTV, 7:27 p.m.
St. Bonaventure vs. Florida, TruTV, 9:57 p.m.