I was a rookie reporter in 1980 when Fordham University and Iona College had a rivalry up at Rose Hill in the Bronx. They packed them in at the old Rose Hill Gym and a few miles up the road in New Rochelle at the Mulcahy Center.
That was a great New York college basketball rivalry. The two home-and-home battles were intense and, at times, nasty as two schools fought for position in the initial year of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Iona and Fordham were in the MAAC with the Manhattan College Jaspers.
You always became a fan and hoped to see Iona and Fordham represent the MAAC this time of year as a part of March Madness. Unfortunate though as Fordham, on more than one occasion, would be resigned to accepting an invite to the second longest tournament known as the NIT.
Iona, without an automatic conference bid, would also settle and hope to get the invite. I am telling you this because there has been a history with these two schools. Fordham is now in the prominent Atlantic-10 Conference and Iona always said they were comfortable in the mid-major MAAC.
But during this COVID-19 college basketball season, the story is Iona College and it’s about Rick Pitino.
The Gaels and Pitino begin their journey Saturday in Indianapolis when they take on second seeded Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Pitino has his Gaels dancing and years later the MAAC Conference is smiling from here to Indianapolis.
Pitino, whose tenure at Louisville ended amidst a recruiting scandal in 2017, is taking his record tying fifth team to the “big dance.” He returns to the NCAA Tournament and that’s what matters as Louisville and Kentucky, two of his former schools watch from home.
No matter how far they go, Iona will be a huge underdog. Pitino (who spent some time in quarantine) and the Gaels overcame three pauses due to COVID and one that put them on the sidelines for 54 days to make it to “March Madness.”
Iona played only 17 games and finished 12-5 as many games were scrapped, so of course some will say they should not be dancing, but Iona won their MAAC Conference tournament last week at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City and earned the automatic bid with a 60-51 win over Fairfield.
They are a 15th seed in the East. Leave it to Rick Pitino, he knows how to get a team to dance in March. Anything is possible for the underdog and Iona has an upset on their agenda. It will take six wins. Regardless, even if Iona plays only one game, they are content to be dancing. Saturday, the Gaels will be the story.
Iona had success the last five years under coach Tim Cluess who had to leave his post due to medical reasons. They knew Pitino was looking to make a comeback after coaching in Greece the past few years.
They got the Hall of Fame coach and it shocked the college basketball world, so it was no surprise to his friends in the fraternity of college basketball that Rick Pitino would take another team to the dance. There was never a doubt from that strong alumni support.
So believe in the Gaels. Believe in Rick Pitino. I will be rooting. Iona College has a tradition and took the chance. They hired a big time name (although a controversial one) that brings exposure to a potential recruit or two and are sitting comfortable in the MAAC Conference.
Two redshirt seniors Asante Gist and Isaiah Ross combined for 31 points and led Iona to the MAAC conference championship. Iona won their fourth game in as many days on the boardwalk.
Rick Pitino took a chance with his seniors. Iona took a chance with their new coach and this has become a success story. He packed six suits or less to wear on the sidelines in Indianapolis as other coaches go with the more casual attire during this different type of NCAA Tournament during the COVID era.
If Rick Pitino only wears one or two of those suits? How can you not root for the coach and his Gaels. This could be a final stop for this Hall of Fame coach but it certainly won’t be the last time he leads the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament.
We will be watching Iona College. So will the NCAA, CBS and Turner Networks. Hey, everyone likes an underdog. However, Rick Pitino was never looked at as the underdog in the NCAA Tournament.
Rich Mancuso: [email protected] Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso