Rick Pitino Says Iona Is A ‘Sleeping Giant,’ Wants To Model Program After Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s

Rick Pitino believes he can turn Iona College into the Gonzaga or the Saint Mary’s of the East Coast.

OK, maybe not Gonzaga, which is the No. 1 team in the nation, but Saint Mary’s for sure.

“I have to learn the [MAAC], but I do think Iona is a sleeping giant,” Pitino, the Naismith Hall of Fame coach who led Kentucky and Louisville to NCAA titles but was fired from Louisville in 2017 after several scandals, told the New York Post this week. “And I judge that by some of the guys I can recruit now. I do believe in the Gonzaga model of recruiting, the St. Mary’s model of recruiting, that 40 to 50 percent of your team has to be foreign players.

“I don’t know if we can do a Gonzaga, but I know we can do a St. Mary’s, and I know we can build it to become one of the strongest programs on the East Coast. But that’s going to take great recruiting and meticulous player development, and those two things I think we’re off to a great start.”

Pitino, 68, will have to adjust to coaching in a one-bid league in the MAAC, where you generally have to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. In his previous stints in the SEC and Big East, multiple teams made the Big Dance as at-large bids.

Under former coach Tim Cluess, the Gaels won the MAAC Tournament five times and made six NCAA Tournament appearances but never won a single game in the Big Dance because they were always a double-digit seed.

As far as recruiting internationally the way Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have done, Iona brought in an eight-man class for Pitino’s first year at the school, and he actually said in October the COVID-19 pandemic helped his staff recruit.

“If it wasn’t for COVID, we couldn’t have brought in the largest recruiting class in my history as a basketball coach…because if everybody was allowed to visit different places, we couldn’t get eight guys, one from Germany, one from Sweden, one from Rwanda, Nigeria, New York, North Carolina, Florida,” he said in a Zoom interview with Vin Parise.

“They just had to make a decision. I think six out of the eight did not know where Iona was, what county or what state it was in. So COVID helped us in recruiting. And so not only did we look at the glass half full, we looked at filling it up right away.”

Now Pitino just has to get his team on the court to play some more games.

The Gaels have had six games canceled already this season due to COVID-19 concerns. Iona had to shut down for 14 days due to a positive test to a support staff member, as first reported on ZAGSBLOG.

Pitino Tweeted that his team’s scheduled game Thursday against Merrimack had been canceled.

Iona’s next scheduled game is Saturday at Hofstra. They will open MAAC play at Quinnipiac Dec. 11, but won’t play their first league game at home until Jan. 1 against Niagara. The Iona staff is currently looking to add more non-conference games this month.

While some teams have played as many as five games already, Iona has played just once, losing Monday at Seton Hall in a game that featured a reunion between Pitino and his protege Kevin Willard.

“I told him, ‘I love you, I’m so glad to see you back,’ and he said he loved me too,” Willard said. “It’s a weird emotion seeing someone that you worked with for so long and you have so much — you’ve been through a lot of things in your life personally with and professionally — I know with the inside knowledge of what he’s gone through the last three or four years, it’s a joy. When I saw him on the sideline, I said, ‘that’s where Rick Pitino belongs,’ and I think he landed at a phenomenal spot. It’s a tremendous college, and I think the two of them combined, I’m not going to be playing them in three or four years, I’ll tell you that much.”

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