Iona and Rick Pitino’s focus on MAAC Tournament
For months, the rumors have been out.
Whispers that Rick Pitino wants another bite of the high-profile apple, especially after the independent accountability resolution process that reviews some NCAA Division I violations from his coaching days, led to the case against Louisville. acquitted him after his verdict.
Two Northeast Big East schools — Georgetown and St. John’s — are expected to open. Pitino, who has no buyouts, has also been linked to Central Florida, which is moving to the Big 12 and could part ways with Johnny Dawkins.
But for the 70-year-old Pitino and his Iona College players, it’s all noise.
He did not talk to them about it. They don’t seem worried about it.
Two of the Gaels’ top players, Walter Clayton Jr. and Dennis Jenkins, both told The Post that it’s not something they’re worried about at all, that their only concern is getting this successful year right. to finish
“One thing I can assure you, the players pay absolutely zero attention to it,” said Pitino, who has coached two national champions and reached seven Final Fours. “Now more people notice it, but the staff, me and the players don’t. The internet will not hire a coach, I can assure you. It never is and it never will be. “
The season seems to support the claim that the rumors haven’t distracted the Gaels.
Iona (24-7) has won 11 straight games (eight by double-digits) and is the No. 1 seed in the MAAC Tournament, starting with a quarterfinal matchup with Mount St. Mary’s on Wednesday.
The Gaels won the league’s regular-season sweep for the second year in a row, this time by four games.
Pitino prepared them well for league play by assembling a non-conference schedule ranked 65th in the nation, a slate that included CAA regular-season champion Hofstra, American East champion Vermont, St. Bonaventure and St. Louis of the Atlantic. 10, SMU and New Mexico, his son Richard’s team.
Iona appears to be a heavy conference tournament favorite.
It is No. 1 in the MAAC in points scored, field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defense, turnover margin, assists and blocked shots.
It has a NET ranking of 66 and a KenPom ranking of 78, very strong metrics for a mid-major program.
Clayton and junior forward Nellie Jr. Joseph were named to the All-MAAC first team, and Jenkins was on the second team.
“We all know that if we’re alert and ready to play and ready to run our offense at a high pace, the sky’s the limit,” Jenkins said. “There is no limit to this team. This has been our motto all year. We are in control of our destiny. “
It’s all led to this point for Iona, which went one-up in the MAAC Tournament a year ago after winning in Pitino’s first season and scaring fourth-seeded Alabama in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Clayton thinks often about that 2022 quarterfinal loss to Ryder. He missed the front end of a crucial 1-and-1 in the loss that could have iced the game.
St Peter’s won the tournament and became the first 15th seed to reach the Elite Eight.
“For me personally, it’s definitely on my mind a lot,” said Clayton, Iona’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game. “We’re telling the new guys the same things, really the mindset is don’t take anything for granted.”
When Iona hired Pitino three years ago, it always knew he might leave for a bigger school.
Many sources believe that if the right program is invoked, it will take this step.
He has not hidden his displeasure at being in a one-bid league and MAAC tournament structure, which he believes puts the top teams in the conference at a disadvantage because there is no home-court advantage.
But right now, Pitino insists his only focus is on getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
“Let’s go down to Atlantic City and win,” he said. “We are putting in 12-13 hour days at the moment and it would be unfair to think about anything other than winning.”