On a smaller stage, Rick Pitino is still "demanding" and a winner

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Sunday didn’t go as planned for the Iona College men’s basketball team. Visiting St. Peter’s was playing rough-ball,...


NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Sunday didn’t go as planned for the Iona College men’s basketball team. Visiting St. Peter’s was playing rough-ball, which got Iona into rude and bad-tempered trouble. The frustration was evident when Nelly Junior Joseph, a second-year center for Iona, argued fiercely enough over a held ball with St. Peter’s Hassan Drame that both players committed technical fouls in an incident that nearly rushed a fight.

And when Jaylen Murray conceded a long 3-pointer just before the half-time buzzer to give Saint-Pierre the lead, it would have been easy for the Gaels to think – as they retreated to the locker room – that maybe it wasn’t their day.

But the moments of frustration, or resignation, did not linger. Iona beefed up his defense, ramped up his offense and ran away with a comfortable 85-77 win, ensuring the only drama left in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference would be whether Iona (18-3, 10-0 ) could become the first team to finish unbeaten in the league since La Salle did so 32 years ago.

At the end of the game, Iona coach Rick Pitino received the ball for his 800th career college victory, although that total incorporates all 123 wins – including the national championship in the 2012-13 season – at Louisville who were wiped out by NCAA after scandal which centered around gamblers and rookies receiving strippers and prostitutes.

He was then doused with water by his players in Iona’s locker room.

In a serendipitous twist, Pitino’s milestone, albeit unofficial, came amid Louisville’s continued dysfunction, which did not end with his firing in 2017. After a season with an interim coach, Louisville hired Chris Mack replacing Pitino. Mack was suspended for six games at the start of the 2021-22 season when potential NCAA violations were revealed by his recording of a conversation with a former assistant later accused of extorting the school. Mack left the program last week with a $4.8 million settlement.

“I have no animosity towards Louisville because everyone who had Tom Jurich is gone,” Pitino said, referring to his former athletic director who was kicked out with him. “A guy lost his business,” added Pitino, referring to John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s who resigned as president and the University of Louisville Board of Trustees after using a racial slur. “The other guy…”

He quickly shifted gears, adding that he hoped Louisville would hire Kenny Payne, the former Louisville player and Kentucky assistant who is now on the Knicks’ coaching staff.

“I just hope,” Pitino said. “I don’t approve of it because that would probably be the killer for him.”

Just over four years ago, Pitino was disgracefully fired, becoming the only head coach to lose his job in a federal corruption investigation that otherwise only cost assistants their careers. The NCAA still hasn’t solved the Pitino-era Louisville case, but after he was exiled to Greece – he coached parts of two seasons at Panathinaikos – Pitino returned just days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic to accept the job at Iona.

The quaint Iona campus in New Rochelle, NY, with its small brick buildings 20 miles north of Pitino’s Manhattan home, is the type of place lifers coaches imagine landing in their last days. Rick Majerus often thought of ending his career at St. Mary’s, where he could coach in near isolation — and yet not too far from the restaurants of San Francisco and the vineyards of Napa.

“He doesn’t have the bells and whistles I had in Louisville and Kentucky, but none of that bothers me,” Pitino, 69, said, adding that as long as a supportive administration remains in place , it will be satisfied in Iona. He enjoys bus rides to games — he’ll be taking his first flight to a conference game this weekend against Canisius and Niagara — and enjoys working with players and developing a team ethic.

“It’s an easy lifestyle – coaching kids who really care,” Pitino said. “We’re not worried about ‘Let’s get a NIL [name, image and likeness] for $150,000.’ Nobody cares; you just worry about playing the ball, about getting better.

This has always been a fundamental principle of the Pitino teams.

They were rarely populated with rafts of future NBA stars — Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell was among the few exceptions in Louisville, with a few others in Kentucky. On the contrary, Pitino is looking for high potential prospects who want to work in their trade.

That’s what drew three transfers that are starters — graduate guards Tyson Jolly (Southern Methodist) and Elijah Joiner (Tulsa) and junior forward Quinn Slazinski (Louisville) — to Iona after last season.

“I would say it’s been a process,” said Jolly, who started her college career at Baylor and is now in her fourth school, with a smile. Pitino would go after him for picking up his dribble and making a pass after beating his dribble man. He was worried about dribbling into trouble, but Pitino wanted him to focus more on defense.

“I was fighting him – we were fighting him – from the start when we got here because he was demanding so much and we don’t understand exactly what he wants,” said Jolly, who like his teammates cannot have his phone with him during shift. meals and other group activities, a rule that applied to the team’s summer trip to Greece. “But he trains us to make us understand and then, once we get him, he’ll be proud of us.”

Pitino will be proud of Dylan Van Eyck, a 6-foot-8 graduate student from the Netherlands, when he stops cheering and takes his man to the defense. (There’s not much else to discuss with Van Eyck, a sixth man who adds everything the Gaels need – rebounding, scoring, passing and blocking shots.)

Or Walter Clayton Jr., when he enters sophomore and learns the intricacies of a defensive scouting report. (Clayton, a freshman guard who was offered scholarships to play football in Florida, Nebraska and Tennessee, provides a physical presence off the bench.)

Or Osborn Shema, a 7-foot junior backup center, when he picks up another 20 pounds and stops being pushed under the basket. (Shema provided 5 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal against St. Peter’s.)

But nothing will please Pitino more than when Joseph, a 6-foot-9 sophomore with impossibly long arms, realizes that among the many attributes he brings to the Gaels, running point doesn’t make it. not part. On Sunday, Joseph found himself sitting next to Pitino after he dribbled past the St. Pierre press and lost the ball just past Iona’s bench.

It was apparently a recurrence.

“I said, ‘OK, either I’m going to learn to speak Nigerian or you’re going to learn better English,'” Pitino said.

Joseph protested that no one was open.

“OK, I’ll watch the movie,” Pitino told her. “If it’s open, God forbid. And he started laughing. I said, ‘No, it’s not funny.’

But Pitino smiled.

It was the gesture of a coach who expects Joseph’s dribbling indiscretions, as well as other shortcomings of his team, to be cleaned up in the next six weeks, when his teams usually play at their best. best level.

As it stands, the Gaels have built a solid foundation: toppling Alabama in November — they nearly upset the Crimson Tide in the NCAA Tournament last March — and beating Liberty, who lead their division in the ASUN conference. , and Appalachian State, which leads the Sun Belt Conference. Their three losses were at Kansas, Belmont and St. Louis.

But it’s a group that seems determined to do more than get an invite to the NCAA Tournament. This is a team that, like its once-travelling coach, insists it will be around for a while.

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Newsrust - US Top News: On a smaller stage, Rick Pitino is still "demanding" and a winner
On a smaller stage, Rick Pitino is still "demanding" and a winner
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