This was August. Long before the games started to count, more than a month before preseason practices even began.
The Iona men’s basketball team was in Greece, starting a 12-day international tour with the first of five exhibition games. And head coach Rick Pitino was treating every possession as if the Gaels’ season depended on it. He was all over his new players as soon as the ball was tipped.
“He was just yelling,” Elijah Joiner recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what he was yelling about.”
Joiner jokes about it now. It was his official introduction into his new life playing for the legendary coach.
“He coaches every game like it’s the national championship,” the point guard said. “It changes your mindset as a player. Nothing can be taken for granted.”
After guiding Iona to the NCAA Tournament last year despite a season-fracturing 51-day COVID-19 pause, and nearly upsetting second-seeded Alabama in the opening round, Pitino has raised the bar in Year 2. The Gaels knocked off Alabama in a rematch, performed well against a non-conference schedule ranked 39th in the nation and are perfect through almost half of their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule. The Gaels (17-3, 9-0) own nine wins away from home (tied for the most in the country) and have a NET ranking of 54. There is even talk that they could run the table in the MAAC, and join the 1989-90 La Salle team as the only schools with a perfect season in the conference’s 41-year history. That could put them in position to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the MAAC Tournament.
“Our coaches think we can and as a team we think we can as well,” Joiner said.
Added Joiner’s backcourt mate, Tyson Jolly: “I came here to help Iona dominate the MAAC.”
Iona set itself up after last season ended by landing three starters — Joiner (Tulsa), Jolly (SMU) and Quinn Slazinski (Louisville) — in the transfer portal. Joiner, the team’s vocal leader, was the first domino to fall.
Joiner wasn’t aware that Iona was now being coached by a Hall of Famer when the school expressed interest. He sent his high school coach, Mike Oliver, a text message asking if he should be interested in the MAAC program.
“THAT’S RICK PITINO,” Oliver wrote back in all caps. “OR COURSE.”
After committing, Joiner spoke to Jolly on the phone. The two had faced each other a few times in the American Athletic Conference, and had mutual respect for one another. Jolly, who liked the idea of teaming with Joiner and playing for Pitino, soon joined the Gaels. Then came Slazinski, a talented wing forward. They added to a strong core of holdovers, led by reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Nelly Junior Joseph, a physical forward who this season is averaging 13.6 points and team-highs of 8.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
The Gaels have more talent, improved depth and power-conference size. They are ranked 56th in the country in defensive efficiency and lead the MAAC in blocked shots (6.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.27) and scoring margin (7.9). Pitino’s favorite qualities are this group’s versatility and experience. The Gaels can grind you out and run and gun. The roster is old for college — five key players are at least 22 years of age.
“It’s a mature team, so it’s fun,” Pitino said. “I love my team.”
It all starts with the demanding coach, who hasn’t let up at all at the age of 69. He’ll text his coaching staff in the middle of the night about areas in which the team can improve while he’s watching a West Coast game . After the upset win over Alabama on Thanksgiving Day, before his team had even eaten its postgame meal, he was telling his players they could’ve won by more had they boxed out better. The day after games, there is a film session the staff calls “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Following Iona’s 17-point win over Siena on Tuesday, Pitino counted 25 Good clips and 39 Bad ones.
“We can come off a 30-point win and he’ll act like we just got beat by 30 and we haven’t won a game all year,” Jolly, the team’s leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, said. “Even when you think you’re doing everything right, even when you think you’re doing everything he told you, he wants more. You always have to take your game to another level.”
Pitino always backs up his criticism by telling his players it’s about March. He has big goals for this team and this program, and he refuses to settle. He wants Iona to one day become the Gonzaga of the East Coast, a mantra he has repeated since his arrival. He believes this group can win games in the NCAA Tournament with the right draw — games, not a game.
“Understand why I’m coaching you so hard,” he tells them.
Two bracketologists, Brad Wachtel of Facts and Bracks and Dave Ommen of Bracketville, believe Iona could be in at-large territory if the Gaels go undefeated in the MAAC. The last time the conference earned two NCAA berths was in 2012, one of only two occasions that has happened in MAAC history. As long as Iona doesn’t lose more than one or two league games the rest of the way, the Gaels should at least end up with a more favorable matchup than a MAAC team would traditionally receive. Right now, Iona is projected as a 12-seed, according to Bracket Matrix, which averages out 93 tournament projections.
“They’re definitely going to get a seed better than the typical MAAC team gets,” Wachtel said.
This obviously isn’t your typical MAAC team. Iona clearly doesn’t have a typical MAAC coach. And the players don’t have the expectations of a typical MAAC program.
“We,” senior forward Dylan van Eyck said, “want to make history.”