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.
Rick Pitino, Iona win MAAC’s automatic bid, spelling trouble for some high seed in NCAA Tournament
By ADAM ZAGORIARick Pitino is headed back to the NCAA Tournament where he figures to be one of the biggest stars of the Big Dance.
Pitino and top-seeded Iona won the MAAC Tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 76-55 victory over No. 11 Marist at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Iona’s 14 straight win earned the program it’s 14th MAAC Tournament title. Pitino has now led Iona to the NCAA Tournament in two of his three years at the New Rochelle, N.Y. school.
“Man, I wanna cry right now, you know,” Iona guard Daniss Jenkins said on ESPNU after scoring 22 of his game-high 27 points in the second half while shooting 6-of-9 from deep
“We put in a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and a lot of determination. I told my guys tonight, ‘Let’s just go out and play with a lot of passion, a lot of confidence. This is what we work for. We earned it, so let’s go out and take what’s ours.”
The Iona women’s team won the league’s automatic bid with a victory over Manhattan earlier Saturday. The last MAAC school to send both its men and women to the tournament was Iona in 2016.
Both ESPN and Fox have the Iona men (27-7, 17-3 MAAC) projected as a 13 seed, which could spell trouble for some 4 seed.
After Marist tied the game at 46, Iona used a 22-7 run to go ahead 68-53.
MAAC Player of the Year Walter Clayton Jr. had 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists and Nelly Junior Joseph posted 9 points and 8 rebounds. The Gaels scored 23 points off 18 Marist turnovers.
Pitino, the 70-year-old Naismith Hall of Famer, is back in the sports biggest event just as he is being targeted by St. John’s to replace the fired Mike Anderson.
He has no buyout at Iona and could be coaching his final game — or games — with the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament. Pitino lives on the Winged Foot Golf course and would not have to move if he shifts jobs within the New York metropolitan area.
“My interests lie with my team,” he told reporters when asked about St. John’s. “I’m very thankful to Iona. You have to understand one thing: The biggest factor in my life is winning, more so than anything. Winning is the most important thing in my life. In two years in league play, we’re 35-6.”
He added: “If I ever moved, I’d have to have firm belief that the job I take, wherever it may be, could win like Iona. And I’m not sure there are many out there.”
And: “If somebody can match this culture, I want to see it.”
Before the game, one Division 1 coach said: “St. John’s should hire Rick. He’s a great coach, he’s a shrewd businessmen. He wants that job badly.”
Pitino is one of just three coaches to lead five programs to the NCAA Tournament and is the only coach to win NCAA championships at two schools — Kentucky and Louisville — although the Louisville title was later vacated.
Despite the distractions that have circled around Pitino all season, the Iona players have been remarkably focused on winning games.
“The one thing I can assure you of is, the players pay absolutely zero attention to that,” he said recently.
“Now other people pay attention to it, but the staff, myself and the players pay no attention. The internet is not going to hire a coach, I can assure you. It never has and it never will.”
The Gaels have appeared in the Big Dance 15 times overall, and their combined record is 1–15. Iona’s only NCAA Tournament victory to date took place in 1980, but it was vacated by the NCAA due to their star center, Jeff Ruland, having signed a contract with a pro agent a few months earlier. The NCAA record books attribute to them an 0-15 record in NCAA tournament games.
Pitino and these Gaels will now look to shock a higher seed and keep their March Madness run going.
“It’s just starting for us,” Pitino said.
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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.