After a hiatus caused by his own doing, Rick Pitino was back in the spotlight of college basketball at Iona. He led the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament Championship last week.
That secured the league’s automatic bid as the No.15 seed and they gave No. 2 seed Alabama — the SEC regular-season and tournament champs — all it could handle in a 68-55 loss on Saturday.
Pitino was trying to recreate the magic of his unheralded Providence Friars team back in 1987. This time around the icon — who has coached seven NCAA Final Four teams (Providence; Kentucky 1993, 1996 and 1997 and Louisville 2005, 2012, 2013) — fell a bit short.
Ironically, Providence beat an Alabama team in 1987 that featured future NBA players Derrick McKey and Michael Ansley, Jim Farmer and future Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried. The Friars went (14-22) from three that day, while the Crimson Tide shot (7-23) and 46% for the game. Billy Donovan went (5-6) out there and assisted on 7 of the other 9 makes.
The Friars had won twice in Birmingham before meeting Alabama in 1987, dispatching UAB in the first round before a second-round win over Austin Peay. The Friars run came to an end with a Final Four loss to Syracuse.
That run elevated Pitino to head coach of the New York Knicks for two seasons, He went 52-30 with the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks in his final season (1988-89), before leaving the Big Apple for a ceremonious return to college hoops in Kentucky, where he would start a mini-dynasty of one-and-done gems and national championship runs.
Despite being fired and effectively disgraced from the college basketball world following an FBI investigation into his Louisville program in 2017, Pitino has reappeared. His name has even been mentioned as a candidate for the Indiana job, following Archie Miller’s firing on Monday.
"I'm real excited to be at Iona. It's a terrific place with great values."
Rick Pitino talks about his future at Iona after the 1st round loss to Alabama. pic.twitter.com/aqCnV9nyiB
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) March 20, 2021
Iona’s respectable performance in the NCAA just might have been the stepping stone Pitino needs to get back into the big time. Pitino is adamant he isn’t leaving Iona, and if he does it’ll be for retirement. If he does stay for the long haul, he’ll have to find his new Billy Donovan.
But we know how this works, don’t we? They’ll come calling and he’ll be tempted to head to Bloomington, which is one of the best head coaching jobs in college basketball.