The story of a 24-point win by a No. 4 seed over a No. 13 seed is rarely about the lower-seeded team. But when Rick Pitino is involved, things are rarely normal.
UConn pulled away in the second half for a convincing victory over Iona on Friday, giving the Huskies the program’s first NCAA tournament win in more than 2,500 days. But with the coaching vacancy at St. John’s looming and Pitino a potential prime candidate, the Hall of Fame coach’s every word this week was awaited with baited breath. Fair or not to either team, the rumors nearly overtook the game in importance.
Speculation that this offseason could mark his return to a big-name program has been rampant since Pitino was largely cleared this fall in the NCAA investigation that led to his ouster at Louisville. It surged to a roar in the last week, as reports that there was mutual interest between St. John’s and the 70-year-old coach surfaced. Pitino and his players attempted to deny the distraction (“you’re not hired by the internet,” Pitino said Thursday), but it would have been impossible for his team not to hear the noise about his potential exit.
But Pitino also never came close to denying any potential departure, saying only that it would take a “special place” for him to consider leaving Iona and quipping earlier in the week that “he’d have to use navigation” to find the St. John’s campus given he hadn’t been to campus in 30 years.
“I really don't have an answer to it. I have no idea if it is or isn't,” Pitino said moments after the game when asked whether this was his final game at Iona.
His quotes early in his tenure with the Gaels saying he’d like to finish his career at Iona, became few and far between this season, instead taking opportunities to lament the pressure of coaching in a one-bid league like the MAAC compared to being in bigger conferences where at-large bids are commonplace. Pitino also went to Iona president Seamus Carey last offseason and had his buyout reduced to zero, paving the way for a move should he want to depart.
To Iona’s credit, its team came out of the gates strong. The Gaels made four straight shots coming out of the gates to take an early 11–8 lead in the game’s first three minutes, and looked every bit UConn’s equal in the first half, taking a 39–37 lead into halftime in what largely felt like a road game with UConn’s large fan contingent making the trip. If the rumors of Pitino’s departure bothered the current Gaels, they certainly didn’t show it.
But UConn asserted its dominance in the second half, looking like the team that at one point topped the AP Poll before losing six of eight early in Big East play. Iona’s guards (which Pitino often has said he would have recruited to Louisville) outplayed UConn’s in the first half, but a four-point play from NBA prospect Jordan Hawkins set the tone for what would be a comprehensive Huskies beatdown in the second half. And while the Gaels backcourt could at least hang in with UConn’s unit, its frontcourt was thoroughly dominated, with Adama Sanogo posting 22 points and 10 rebounds in the second half to help UConn take control. When UConn plays the way it did in those final 20 minutes, there may not be a team in the nation that can beat them, even if that team is coached by one of the sport’s all-time greats.
No Rick Pitino decision is ever easy. To call his rumored move to St. John’s even close to a certainty would be to ignore Pitino’s history. And while the St. John’s job makes sense for a number of reasons, a coach who Thursday said he hopes to coach another 12 years isn’t on quite as much a timeline to move up as conventional wisdom might indicate. Four of Iona’s five starters have eligibility remaining, so Pitino could come back and continue pounding away in the MAAC for another year. Nothing should ever surprise you when dealing with the capricious coach, and Pitino has been consistently complimentary of Iona’s history of winning and the improvements the school has made to compete in his three years on the job.
If nothing else, Iona’s season coming to an end means closure on these season-long rumors can come soon. It’s important not only for St. John’s and Iona to know where things stand, but also for the rest of the coaching carousel with trickle-down moves sure to come. Pitino’s looming potential return to college basketball prominence hung over this week and this game, which could easily be a preview of Big East matchups to come should his rumored move come to fruition. For now though, Pitino maintains he has “focused everything on this game” though simultaneously leaving reporters with a quip that does show he has at least thought a bit about it.
“You don't buy houses without looking at the garage and the upstairs and the kitchen and everything,” Pitino said.
Perhaps a tour is in order in Queens. The rest of college basketball is waiting.