Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
For Rick Pitino and Iona: Upgraded roster, upgraded schedule and upgraded expectations
By ADAM ZAGORIAWHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — In just his first season after taking over at Iona College, Rick Pitino won the MAAC Conference Tournament championship and became just the third coach to lead five different programs to the NCAA Tournament.
But for all the program’s success, Iona only played 18 games while enduring the nation’s longest COVID-19 pause — 51 days plus another one lasting 20. Pitino himself battled the virus and had to quarantine in an apartment on campus for 10 days.
And so the coach isn’t really sure how good his team was a year ago.
“I couldn’t tell you if we were good or bad last year,” Pitino, the only coach to lead two programs to an NCAA Tournament title, told ZAGSBLOG last Thursday at a coaches’ clinic at Archbishop Stepinac High School.
“We played 13 games, and then we played five more with the [MAAC and NCAA] Tournament. We were out [51 ]days, it was such a bizarre year. I couldn’t tell you whether we were good, bad or indifferent.”
Now that he’s been on the job a year and a half, has had time to fully assemble his roster and is headed into a year that is expected to be somewhat more normal, the 69-year-old Pitino has much higher expectations for the Gaels.
“This year we’re deeper and more talented, but if it wasn’t for Greece I wouldn’t know what we have,” he said.
The new-look Gaels traveled to Greece last month and went 1-4 against professional opponents, concluding with an 82-70 victory over Ionikos Nikaias B.C. at Nikaias Platonas Indoor Hall.
“Anytime you play five pro games, you know exactly what you have, and that was a great experience,” said Pitino, who for two years before Iona coached Panathinaikos of the Greek Basket League and EuroLeague, where his team won the 2018-19 Greek Basket League season championship and the Greek Cup.
“We didn’t shoot well because their defense was stronger and more physical, but we found out who can play and who can’t play.”
Pitino singled out sophomore guard Ryan Myers, a Christ the King product, and sophomore forward Nelly Junior Joseph for their “terrific” play. “They were the only guys that didn’t have trouble with pros,” he said. “Even our fifth-year guys had trouble with the pros and the physicality of it.”
Veteran guards Isaiah Ross and Asante Gist are gone, but Pitino returns several key pieces, including the the 6-9 Junior Joseph, a native of Nigeria who averaged 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in his first season of college basketball.
Berrick JeanLouis, a 6-4 senior guard, averaged 8.1 points and 5.4 rebounds, and the 6-foot Myers is expected to take a jump after averaging 6.0 points as a freshman. Dutch forward Dylan van Eyck averaged 7.1 points and 6.3 boards a year ago.
Pitino bolstered his roster in the offseason by adding several transfers, including point guard Elijah Joiner (Tulsa), shooting guard Tyson Jolly (SMU) and forward Quinn Slazinski (Louisville).
The 6-foot-3 Joiner, 22, averaged 11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 22 games last season for Tulsa.
The 6-4 Jolly, 24, comes to Iona after stints at SMU, Baylor and Trinity Valley Community College. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.8 assists in eight games last season at SMU, and 14.5 points and 6.2 dimes the year before.
“I picked Iona to go play for the Hall of Fame Coach Rick Pitino,” Jolly said when he committed in April. “I have watched his teams over the years and watched his recruits be developed and do well in their careers with him and after him. It’s a great opportunity to get better, learn and be mentored from one of the best day in and day out, and put myself in a great position to potentially make history and set myself up to make a lot of money playing the game I love.”
In May, Iona added Slazinski, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward from Houston who averaged 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds last season in 20 games at Louisville. He will have up to three years of eligibility.
Meantime, Pitino beefed up his non-conference schedule with games against Liberty, Hofstra, Harvard, Yale, Seton Hall and also Alabama and then either Belmont or Drake in the in ESPN Events International in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., over Thanksgiving.
“We’re going to play Liberty, which won 25 games three straight years, Seton Hall, who’s averaged 19 wins,” Pitino said. “We’re playing the Disney Classic with Alabama, Belmont, Drake, Kansas, Miami, so that’s going to be difficult.
“We’re playing Yale in the Barclays Center, we’re playing in the UBS Center, we’re playing Harvard and Hofstra at home and they’re going to be good. If you play non-conference games, you want to play recognition schools and we think they’re both very good.”
One issue with playing in the MAAC is that even if you win the conference tournament, you end up being a very low seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Iona was a 15 seed a year ago and drew No. 2 Alabama in the first round. Before that, Tim Cluess led the Gaels to six NCAA appearances in eight seasons but never won a game in the Big Dance.
“We know that anybody could win the MAAC,” Pitino said. “When you’ve got to play three games in a one-bid league, we’re trying to still get a bid even if we lose in the [MAAC] Tournament. That’s our goal. It’s not to try and get a high seed. It’s if we don’t win the tournament, we want to still be able to get a bid and that means you’ve got to beat some of these teams.
“You’ve got to beat Alabama, you’ve got to beat Liberty, you’ve got to beat some of these teams.”
Iona was the last MAAC team to get an at-large bid in 2012.
Pitino was fired by Louisville in 2017 in the wake of multiple scandals, but the Naismith Hall of Famer has maintained he knew nothing about two of the three, and the evidence bears that out.
Now he has seemingly rehabilitated his image while coaching at a school close to his home in New York. He lives on the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck and got an up-close look (along with his staff) at the U.S. Open in 2020.
“Coach Pitino is one of the most loyal, sincere, best people I’ve ever been around,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, a longtime assistant under Pitino at Louisville and with the Celtics. “I love the fact that he’s at Iona, I think it’s a great fit for both of them and I won’t schedule them again after this year, I’ll tell you that much.”
As for his future, Pitino looks around and sees that North Carolina’s Roy Williams, 70, has retired and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, 74, will retire after this season. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who turns 77, in November, is still coaching and may go until he’s 80. Larry Brown, who is 80, just signed on to be an assistant under Penny Hardaway at Memphis.
So how long with Pitino keep coaching?
“My feeling is as long as I can do four player development sessions in the morning, as long as I can give a high energy in the afternoon, as long as I can give high energy in recruiting, I’ll do it for as long as I can,” he said.
“The day comes where I can’t do the player development sessions, I can’t showcase the energy in practice, then I’ll know. I don’t think it’s an age thing. Tom Brady’s different than Brett Favre or from another guy. So it all depends on the athlete and the coach.”
Iona will host 6-foot-5 Our Savior Lutheran and New Heights Lightning wing Sadiku Ibine Ayo on an official visit Thursday-Saturday. He is a strong, physical two-way player who competed at Peach Jam with the Lightning and then picked up an offer from Iona to go with offers from Seton Hall, St. John’s and others.
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.