The Iona Gaels, coached by Rick Pitino, are going dancing.
The Gaels, who were the ninth seed in the MAAC Tournament, defeated Fairfield 60-51 on Saturday to secure the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It’s quite the story for multiple reasons, among them Pitino joining elite company in taking a fifth different school to the Big Dance.
Iona’s season has been marked by multiple COVID-19 pauses. The Gaels didn’t play any games between Dec. 23 and Feb. 12, but won the conference tournament anyway. In fact, their low seeding was not because the team struggled, but because they entered the tournament having played only nine conference games.
Pitino has been embroiled in multiple NCAA scandals, which cost him his job at Louisville and essentially forced him into exile in the Greek league. This was his first year as coach at Iona, and the team had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get where they did Saturday. Like him or not, there’s a reason Pitino is regarded as one of the best coaches in the business.
Louisville’s latest round of potential NCAA violations has Rick Pitino under the microscope again.
On Monday, Louisville received a notice of allegations from the NCAA accusing the school of breaking rules relating to the recruitment of Brian Bowen. The letter charges Pitino directly with a Level II violation for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance at the school.
Pitino was recently hired by Iona, and the school released a statement backing its new basketball coach.
Bowen’s recruitment led to the end of Pitino’s Louisville tenure. The coach was fired after a federal investigation alleged that an Adidas executive paid Bowen $100,000 to commit to Louisville. Pitino maintained innocence, and continues to do so.
Iona knew what it was signing up for by hiring Pitino. Don’t expect them to cut ties over this or anything else that may have happened at his previous college job.
Rick Pitino has big plans for his Iona basketball team.
The new head coach of the Gaels is ready and willing to face off against Kentucky in a true road game provided the Wildcats return the favor and face Iona at Madison Square Garden as part of a home-and-home.
Pitino has a long history with Kentucky. He spent eight years as coach there and won a national title, then spent time at rival Louisville. Beyond that, he’s clearly eager to challenge the best, even before coaching a game in his new job. That’s why he’s making bets with his son, too.
Rick Pitino’s coaching staff at Iona is starting to take form.
Josh Thomson of Lohud.com reported on Tuesday that Casey Stanley and Tom Abatemarco are set to join Pitino’s staff.
Stanley is an assistant at Arkansas State and previously served as Rick’s video coordinator at Louisville, and Rick’s son Richard’s video coordinator at Minnesota.
Abatemarco has been a coach for over 40 years and was most recently an assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast. As Thomson notes, Abatemarco was at Iona in the ’70s.
Rick Pitino is heading back to college basketball, and he sounds thrilled.
The veteran coach reached an agreement with Iona to become the new basketball coach. He issued a statement after the news was confirmed, suggesting that he plans for this to be his final coaching stop.
A deal between Pitino and Iona came together quickly on Saturday, and Pitino gets his return to college after being fired over the Louisville recruiting scandal in 2017. He had claimed he didn’t want to come back to the college ranks, but this makes it pretty clear it was his dream all along.
Very few college basketball experts thought Iona would make the NCAA Tournament, but the Gaels reached the dance as a 14-seed. Iona went 25-7 in the regular season and but failed to win the MAAC tournament (Loyola, Md. won it), meaning they got in as an at-large team. Surprisingly, NCAA Tournament committee chairman Jeff Hathaway said Iona was not the last team in the tournament.
“No, they were not the last team in,” Hathaway said on the CBS Selection Show. “Iona they had a very good non-conference strength of schedule — they were 44. I know a lot of people are going to try and compare them to Drexel, Drexel was well over 200. They had some good top 100 wins. Very good basketball team, very good on offense. We think we got that one right, and obviously a lot of people will debate it, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Iona beat Nevada, St. Joe’s, Maryland, and America East tourney winner Vermont non-conference, so that probably helped their case. But looking at their conference schedule, it’s hard for me to believe they had a better resume than, say, Seton Hall.