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LI’s Tim Cluess not afraid of Duke as 15th-seeded Iona draws big, bad Blue Devils in NCAA Tournament

Tim Cluess, Head coach of the Iona Gaels,

Tim Cluess, Head coach of the Iona Gaels, reacts to a shot block by his team during play between the Syracuse Orange and Iona Gaels on November 14, 2017, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. Credit: AP / Orry Perce

Iona will face Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

That announcement on Selection Sunday did not stun Gaels coach Tim Cluess.

It exhilarated him.

Iona is seeded 15th and Duke second in the Midwest Regional. “It’s very exciting. The [players] were all excited,’’ Cluess said.

The Floral Park resident, an ultra-successful high school and college coach on Long Island before heading to Division I, is making his fifth trip to The Big Dance.

“You’re going in there and you know how good the other team is and the program is,’’ Cluess said, “and you just got to go in, do everything you can and fight as hard as you can and be scrappy and be tough and hope that some things — or a lot of things — bounce your way. It’s a great opportunity.’’

That chance will occur Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Cluess, 58, is 182-91 with four MAAC championships in eight seasons at Iona. NCAA Tournament losses have come against BYU, Ohio State, Iowa State and Oregon. In 2012, Iona lost to BYU, 78-72, after building a 25-point lead in the first half.

Iona is 1-12 in the NCAA Tournament, and that 84-78 victory over Holy Cross in 1980 was vacated by the NCAA for alleged violations.

Cluess said his team has no stars, but the Gaels have five players averaging double figures: Rickey McGill (13.5), E.J. Crawford (12.9), Roland Griffin (10.9), Deyshonee Much (10.8) and Schadrac Casimir (10.4).

Duke is star-studded with Marvin Bagley III (21.1 points, 11.5 rebounds), Grayson Allen (15.7), Gary Trent Jr. (14.3), Wendell Carter Jr. (13.8, 9.3) and Trevon Duval (9.9, 5.0 assists).

Cluess had expected a low seed, saying, “In fairness, that’s about right because we didn’t have a really strong year for us.’’

Iona is facing a program that has won five NCAA championships. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is making his 34th appearance in the tournament.

That said, Cluess has never gone into a game thinking he didn’t have a chance to win. “Magical things happen in basketball and upsets happen in basketball. They do. So that’s why they play the game,” he said. “And you play as hard as you can and you try to make some magic happen.

“Listen, if you never get the opportunity, then you never have a chance to win a game like that. We’ve won on the road, we’ve won at Wake Forest, we won at Georgia, we’ve had some of those types of games. I know it’s not quite as high-level, but it’s right there.

“You’ve got to know that you need to play your best ‘A’ game of the year, and if we happen to be on a night where we happen to be shooting the ball really well, maybe the other team isn’t quite a hundred percent on their game, that’s when you can have a chance for an upset.’’

Iona and Cluess will get some big-time attention this week. It started Sunday night with an appearance on NBC’s Sports Final with host Bruce Beck.

Cluess may be mentioned for higher-profile jobs, but he has insisted he isn’t interested in leaving the area. “I’ve never had designs. That’s the reality of who I am,’’ he said. “I remember where I came from and where my family came from. I’m blessed to do what I do.’’

First Four for LIU Brooklyn. NEC champion LIU Brooklyn (18-16) will play Big South champion Radford (22-12) Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will meet Villanova (30-4), the top seed in the East Regional.

New York Sports