Rick Pitino Forges a New Path to the Tournament With Iona

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The old Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, with its Renaissance-style architecture, its grand arched roof and the world’s largest pipe organ, is a fitting platform for a final act. And so, there was Rick Pitino late Saturday afternoon, with only family members and friends in the cavernous arena, stalking the sidelines in a dapper navy suit, waving his rolled-up notes around like a maestro conducting an orchestra.

It all looked so familiar, except for the setting.

Pitino, the only college coach to win national titles with two programs, was here with Iona College in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship game, far from college basketball’s Broadway, for a sole reason: It was the only college that would hire him after Louisville fired him in 2017 following a string of embarrassing scandals.

The Gaels’ 60-51 victory over Fairfield was, if not quite a redemptive turn, then clearly a restorative one for Pitino, 68, who is taking his fifth program to the N.C.A.A. tournament.

That it came during a pandemic might stamp this as one of the most gratifying seasons in a career full of them. Pitino, who was hired a year ago Sunday, first set foot in his office in June and overhauled his roster, bringing in 12 new players.

“You have no idea how difficult it was coaching this year, and it was even more difficult playing this year,” Pitino said. “But like I told the players almost daily: We’re never going to complain, because over 500,000 have lost their lives.”

He added, “For them to win four games coming out of Covid pause is remarkable to me.”

If he wasn’t coaching future pros, the Gaels in this tournament have taken on the patina of a Pitino team. They play relentless defense, picking up the ball as soon as it crosses midcourt. Nelly Junior Joseph, a long-armed 6-foot-9 freshman from Nigeria, challenges any shot near the rim. Fairfield managed just 4 points in the first nine minutes on Saturday and shot just 30.2 percent for the game.

Asante Gist, who scored 18 points, was the tournament’s most valuable player. Gist, a senior from East Orange, N.J., had played for Eastern Kentucky as a freshman against Pitino’s Louisville team, after which Pitino pulled him aside to tell him he would be a better point guard if he could do more than score.

Saturday’s game was Iona’s fourth win in five days, this one going wire to wire. It left Pitino in a buoyant mood. He maintained that he isn’t old, noting that he is younger than President Biden. He spun a story about drinking with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. He also joked that the N.C.A.A. selection committee might stick his team with an 18 seed. (There are no seeds below 16.)

The Gaels will fly to Indianapolis on Saturday night and find out Sunday night who they will play. No MAAC team has won a tournament game since 2009, but underestimating a Pitino-coached team — especially one that he said is playing its best basketball — is a risky proposition.

“I told them I was packing eight suits,” Pitino said he had told his team before the start of the MAAC tournament.

The Gaels’ most troublesome opponent, though, has been the coronavirus.

Because of flight restrictions, the pandemic kept Junior Joseph and Dylan van Eyck, who is from the Netherlands, from getting to the United States until the fall semester had already started. The Gaels paused basketball activities four times since October, playing only 13 games before the MAAC tournament. A severe outbreak, in which nine players, two coaches (including Pitino) and two managers were infected, prompted a 51-day break between games from late December to mid-February. It was the longest pause of any school that played this season.

Then, in late February, another player's positive test caused the cancellation of the final five regular-season games. Players who tested negative and cleared MAAC protocols were permitted to work out individually. But when the tournament began, the Gaels had not played in 17 days and had only a handful of practices to prepare.

“Every time we get a rhythm, get a winning streak, we go into quarantine,” the senior guard Isaiah Ross said a smile.

But the Gaels trounced Quinnipiac in their opening game, rallied from a 9-point deficit to upset top-seeded Siena in the quarterfinals and held off a rally by Niagara in the semifinals. Even then, Pitino lamented that his players were not in peak physical condition, as they had been in November at the start of the season.

“In New York, it’s handled a lot differently than other places,” Pitino said recently of virus protocols. “We get locked down. We don’t even get 10 minutes in the courtyard.”

Pitino was not hired to restore luster to a program — as he had been at virtually every other stop, be it Providence, Kentucky, Louisville or even the N.B.A.’s Knicks and Boston Celtics. Iona had won the four previous MAAC tournaments, but the roster was barren by the time Tim Cluess, who took a medical leave last season, resigned.

Seamus Carey, the president of Iona, hired Pitino to elevate the profile of the university — a small private institution in New Rochelle, N.Y., a diverse, close-knit community just north of New York City. The two had met through a mutual acquaintance when Pitino was at Louisville and Carey was the president at nearby Transylvania University. Carey offered him the job last year after flying to Madrid, where Panathinaikos, the Greek club that Pitino was coaching, was playing.

It was not a move without risk.

Louisville had been charged with N.C.A.A. violations in connection with a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. The results were announced in September 2017. The case has not yet been resolved. Pitino, who was fired a month later, has maintained he did not know about payments that were funneled to a Louisville recruit’s family by a shoe company representative.

Those worries, though, seemed far from anyone’s mind on Saturday.

As the final minutes wound down, a lone voice from the crowd shouted, “Indiana, here we come.”

A short while later, the Gaels began the ritual cutting down of the nets. They posed at center court with the tournament trophy, listening to “We Are the Champions,” knowing they were headed off to the N.C.A.A. tournament. Alongside them, Pitino stood, his right fist clenched above his head, looking just as happy as everyone else to be there.

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