By Matt Norlander
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — There is no player as hot on NBA scouts’ radar right now as Iona senior point guard Scott Machado. After barely registering as a prospect worth tracking in his first three seasons with the Gaels, the buzz about Machado has only grown with each game this season.
That trend will continue after his 10-assist performance Monday night in a 100-84 routing of Long Island. The Gaels improved to 4-1, looking like a top-25 team in the process, even if Long Island, which went to the NCAA tournament last year, is most definitely not of that caliber right now.
“That’s a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament right now,” Long Island coach Jim Ferry said. “They should’ve beat Purdue. You have try to contain Machado. MoMo Jones is the fourth option, and he was the second-leading scorer at Arizona last year, and he’s the fourth guy you’re worried about guarding? This might be the best team in this area [greater New York City] in the past 10 years. They have three Big East-level players playing in the MAAC.”
Machado (who I ranked No. 26 at point guard in October -- whoops!) also put up 14 points and had five turnovers, but a few of those came late, in garbage time. (If it was going at full speed, Iona could have put up 115 on LIU without a fight, and Machado would’ve had 13 or 14 assists if it weren’t for some bunny layups that didn’t fall.) Machado leads the nation in assists per game (12.2), as does his team (22.6). The Gaels are also the nation’s most potent offense through the month of November, scoring and scorching at a 95.4-points-per-game clip. Machado’s the primary point guard, but Jones had a career-high six assists Monday night, and Kyle Smyth, a senior who plays the 3, also dished out six dimes.
Iona is extremely good and undoubtedly underrated right now. This team’s only loss came to Purdue, in the first game of the year, after Robbie Hummel hit a clinching 3-point shot to bail out the Boilers. While a lot of factors have serendipitously come into play, Machado’s leap to the elite class of college point guard is the biggest reason why Iona is the best team within a 130-mile radius of its campus.
“He’s a completely different player, not even close,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said. “It’s like having a sophomore to a senior. Like, he didn’t make one year’s worth improvement, he made two. ... I think going to Brazil helped him see other guys’ work ethics and trying to become professionals. Now, it’s like a night-and-day player.”
The biggest reason for this Hulk-like change into an elite point guard was Machado’s time with the Under-21 Brazilian national team over the summer. The smaller reason: Cluess asked Machado to shed off 10 to 12 pounds. He did that. He’s also now a gym rat, which was never the case with him prior to this fall.
“He deserves this,” Mike Glover (who scored 28 Monday night) said of his teammate. “Him going to Brazil was the best thing to ever happen to Scott. But at the same time, I’m pretty sure he’s not satisfied with where he’s at right now.”
Where he’s at is sharing sentences with North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who’s considered by many to be the best 1 in the game along with Xavier's Tu Holloway and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor. Now people believe Machado’s a top-five point guard in college basketball, and his coach thinks he’s No. 2 behind Marshall. As does Jay Bilas, who said he's the second-best passer in the country. Could the best pure point guard in college basketball really be playing in the MAAC?
“The guy he’s fighting against plays for North Carolina,” Cluess said. “Think about if Scott were throwing to those guys. He’d average 20 assists per game. It’s no shot on our team, but it’s a different level.”
It wasn’t expected to go this way. Jones coming in meant Machado would acquiesce some time at the 1 to allow Iona to split point guard duty, making them tougher to scout in the process. Turns out they’re tougher to play against no matter what, with all the running and Machado becoming basically indefensible so far this season. His mindset is this:
“I’ve noticed there’s a lot of point guards in the league that like to score the ball and not a lot that to distribute the ball and get their teams involved before they get themselves involved,” he said. “That’s so much easier to play the game when you get your teammates involved. When you’re getting your teammates dunks and layups, it makes it makes it easier for you.”
Machado’s at the 1 about 80 percent of the time for the Gaels. Jones is bringing the ball up the floor — when it’s not a fast break — the remaining 20 percent. Machado credits how Cluess has quickly works this team into a condition that's already paying big dividends. It's not going to stop, either, which could be this team's mantra. Iona’s practices are now essentially three-hour track meets.
“A 40-minute game, it’s like a joke to us,” Glover said. “When competition comes, 40 minutes is nothing, and we wore them out tonight.”
They will try to gas every team they play this year. If they can do that and remain efficient with passing the ball and not turning it over (which they haven't been), this will unquestionably be one of the best mid-major teams out there.
“Honestly, our goal was 20 assists per game,” Cluess said. “We’ve done that in every game so far, and I can’t tell you I expect that from every game, but it’s what we strive for. The fact we’re doing that means we must be playing better than anticipated right now."
Anticipation and expectation are getting adjusted in New Rochelle, where the best team in the northeast not named UConn is playing catch-your-breath basketball thanks to the most surprising new NBA prospect the sport has so far this season.