Rick Pitino, Iona, and One of the Riveting Subplots of the 2020-21 Season

After three years away from college basketball, Rick Pitino recently earned his first victory since March of 2017. In a sport (and year) that is filled with unpredictability, few could have seen this coming at a small school like Iona.

Pitino’s history as a head coach includes stops at Boston University, Providence, the Knicks, Kentucky, the Celtics, Louisville, and a few years over in Greece. Excluding his shaky NBA tenure, it can be said that he has been successful at every other stop he has made along his journey.

Taking that into consideration, it is hard to imagine a Hall of Fame coach like Pitino returning to coaching at the mid-major level. The smaller environment does provide him with a chance at a fresh start without a lot of the spotlight, which could be a good thing considering how things ended at Louisville.

What makes this story even more intriguing is that Pitino won’t be the king of the campus, as he will have the pressure of trying to continue the longtime success and pedigree that the Iona program has. His predecessor, Tim Cluess, built Iona into a MAAC power, one that appeared in nine consecutive postseason tournaments under his watch.

It isn’t just any mid-major program that Pitino is stepping into. Iona has won the MAAC regular season championship 10 times, as well as its conference tournament 12 times, both of which sit atop the MAAC’s record book. The Gaels are also one of only 13 teams to have appeared in each of the last four NCAA Tournaments, joining Gonzaga as the only two mid-majors in that group.

Under Cluess, Iona won 124 games in MAAC regular season play, and 199 games factoring in nonconference play. His nine years are tied for the second-longest tenure in program history, and has a win percentage of .648, which ranks among some of Iona’s best when considering the length of his tenure. Cluess did not coach the 2019-20 season due to health issues, and officially resigned in March.

Examining all of this, it is fair to say that there should be a little pressure on Pitino to succeed immediately due to his pedigree along with the program’s. The Gaels have already reached heights not many programs on their level have, but the question now has become can Pitino take them even higher?

Pitino recently said that he considers Iona to be a “sleeping giant”, and went on say that he sees a scenario where he could build the program using a recruiting style similar to Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. The formula for those two schools has been recruiting abroad, as roughly half of their rosters are typically stocked with international talent.

That style of recruiting has helped those two schools become the gold standard of mid-majors over the past decade-plus. Gonzaga, under Mark Few, has never had less than 23 wins in a season during his entire tenure dating back to 1999, while earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament every single year. Randy Bennett and Saint Mary’s have the unfortunate reality of being in the same conference as Gonzaga, but have still posted a similar mold of consistency. Bennett has been there since the 2001-02 season, and has 14 seasons of 20-plus wins along with 13 appearances in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

These two programs have produced not only wins but also quality players, with a lot of them being international players. The list for Gonzaga features guys such as Ronny Turiaf, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, Rui Hachimura and Filip Petrušev. That just accounts for players who won WCC Player of the Year. The list didn’t even include names like Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and Killian Tillie. Saint Mary’s has similar results, with the most notable names being Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Jock Landale.

So when a Hall of Fame coach like Pitino comes to a mid-major and wants to build off of the Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s model, it is something to keep an eye on. Pitino brought in eight new players after he was named the head coach, including four overseas players. Nelly Junior Joseph and Osborn Shema, two of those newcomers, have the potential to form one of the MAAC’s most dominant frontcourts. Junior Joseph, regarded by Pitino as one of the best players from Africa in his class, had spent time at the NBA Academy Africa since 2018. Shema is one of the tallest players the program has had in the past two decades, and chose Pitino’s Gaels over Florida State and Rutgers after transferring from New Mexico Military Institute.

In the past, Pitino has demonstrated the ability to recruit abroad. Recently at Louisville, he coached players such as Gorgui Dieng and Deng Adel, both of which have professional experience. After spending a few seasons coaching in Greece, he has probably added another layer of connections he can use to recruit.

Another advantage of recruiting for Iona is its geographical location. Being in New Rochelle, Pitino now has a plethora of talent to scout in New York City, a traditional hotbed of talent. In his first class, he brought in two NYC guards, Ryan Myers and Omar Rowe. Pitino, who was born in NYC, will certainly have a leg up with recruiting throughout the city compared to a lot of other coaches.

The MAAC will present some challenges for Pitino, however. Unlike past conferences he has coached in, the MAAC is traditionally a single-bid league. The last time it produced two NCAA Tournament teams was 2012, when Iona earned an at-large bid after Loyola won the conference tournament. The MAAC should have been a two-bid league in 2016, when it had one of the best mid-major teams in the country in Monmouth. They were left out in favor of teams like Vanderbilt and Syracuse, who both had 13 losses (tied for the most of any at-large team in the field). In all fairness to the Orange, they were able to mount a Final Four run, but a lot of metrics favored the Hawks. The selection committee might not view mid-major at-large teams the same way it did ten years ago, which makes winning the automatic bid crucial for Pitino.

In the years Kentucky was eligible for postseason play (1992-97), the Wildcats only suffered one loss in the SEC Tournament when Pitino was at the helm. More recently, in his 16 seasons at Louisville, the Cardinals won their conference tournament (Big East/AAC) four times. 75 percent of the time, they entered as an at-large team. It is safe to say that it is MAAC Tournament or bust for him at Iona, at least for the first few years. If he is able to build the program up into something like Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s, an at-large bid could be in the discussion. Judging by the committee’s decisions regarding mid-majors in recent years, however, an at-large bid should never be counted on, even if he can elevate Iona into the ranks of those schools.

Mid-major programs are usually stepping stones for big name coaches as they look to climb to the high-major level. Pitino mentioned recently that he did see Iona as a stepping stone program, but towards retirement, not a high-major job. He went on to say that he had roughly seven-to-eight years of coaching left. If he does stay at Iona for that length of time, he would have the opportunity to bring the program, and conference, to heights not seen before.

(Cover Photo: Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

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