Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and this time it’s with Iona.
The Gaels came into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 9 seed and beat Quinnipiac, Siena, Niagara and Fairfield on their way to winning the conference title.
It’s the fifth different team Pitino has taken to the tournament. He took Boston University dancing in 1983, Providence in 1987, Kentucky several times in the 1990s and Louisville in the 2000s and 2010s.
“I think what I have is experience,” Pitino told the New York Post on Sunday. “And I think that, more than anything else, Iona’s had a difficult time getting out of the first round. They haven’t done it since Jimmy V [Valvano]. And primarily because they’re going against teams that are 20-point, 25-point favorites. I was on the flip side where you’re a 1 seed and you’re a 2 seed, and you have a major advantage physically, size-wise, and it takes an awful lot.”
Pitino told the paper he hoped his team didn’t have to play Gonzaga and he got his wish. Iona will be lining up against No. 2 Alabama later this week.
He joined Iona prior to the start of the 2020-21 season and the hiring was met with controversy. He was coaching in Greece after getting fired in Louisville’s pay-for-play scandal as well as getting wrapped up in other investigations involving the school.
“Louisville is a great program. Unfortunately, some people in life did some things wrong and a lot of innocent people have suffered,” Pitino said Saturday. “Not only me, but a lot of innocent people that are behind the program and that’s disappointing. But I’m the leader of this ship. I said it over and over. I deserved to be fired because if somebody under me did the wrong things, I deserve it.”
MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor acknowledged the ramifications of hiring Pitino.
“They’ve benefited from having him in the league and we’ve benefited from the PR,” Ensor said. “Now, there was some controversy, but that was a hiring decision. Once they’re hired, I work with whoever’s there.”
Pitino has said he intends to finish his career with Iona, doubting that any top school would ever call him again.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.