Iona and Rick Pitino’s focus on MAAC Tournament


Rumors have been circulating for months.

Whispers Rick Pitino wants another bite of the big apple, especially after the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, which reviews certain NCAA Division I violations, cleared him of his days with the coach after ruling in the Louisville case.

Two northeastern Big East schools – Georgetown and St. John’s – are expected to have openings. Pitino, who has no buyout, has also been linked with Central Florida moving to the Big 12 and could part ways with Johnny Dawkins.

But to 70-year-old Pitino and his Iona College players, all of that is noise.

He has not spoken to them about it. They don’t seem concerned about it.

Two of the Gaels’ top players, Walter Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins, both told The Post it’s not something they’re worried about, that their only concern is to finish off this successful year.

Iona coach Rick Pitino said he is focusing on the MAAC tournament and not future new jobs.
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“The one thing I can assure you is that the players pay absolutely no attention to that,” said Pitino, who has coached two national champions and reached seven Final Fours. “Now other people are paying attention, but the staff, myself and the players are not paying attention. The internet is not going to hire a coach, I can assure you. It never has and it never will.”

The season seemed to support the claim that the rumors have not distracted the Gaels.

Iona (24-7) has won 11 games in a row (eight in double digits) and is the #1 seed in the MAAC tournament, which opens Wednesday in a quarterfinal game with Mount St. Mary’s.

The Gaels won the regular season of the league for the second year in a row, this time winning four matches.

Pitino prepared them well for league games by compiling a non-conference schedule ranked 65th in the nation, a roster that included CAA regular season champion Hofstra, American East champion Vermont, St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis of the Atlantic 10, SMU and New Mexico, his son Richard’s team.

Daniss Jenkins, who went for a shot earlier in the season, said yes "no ceiling" for Iona.
Daniss Jenkins, who went for a shot earlier this season, said there is “no ceiling” for Iona.
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Iona seems to be the favorite of the tough conference tournament.

It is #1 in the MAAC in points scored, field goal percentage, defense field goal percentage, turnover margin, assists and blocked shots.

It has a NET ranking of 66 and KenPom ranking of 78, very strong stats for a mid-sized program.

Clayton and junior forward Nelly Junior Joseph were selected to the All-MAAC first team and Jenkins was on the second team.

“We all know that when we’re defending and ready to play and executing our offense at a fast pace, the sky is the limit,” said Jenkins. “There is no ceiling for this team. That has been our motto all year. We are in control of our own destiny.”

Iona star Walter Clayton Jr.  is looking for some redemption after losing to the Gaels in last year's MAAC tournament.
Iona star Walter Clayton Jr. is looking for some redemption after losing to the Gaels in last year’s MAAC tournament.
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It all led to this point for Iona, who had a one-off in the MAAC Tournament a year ago after winning it in Pitino’s first season and scaring fourth-seeded Alabama in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament .

Clayton thinks about that 2022 Quarterfinal loss to Rider on a regular basis. He missed the front of a crucial 1-and-1 in the rout that could have frozen the game.

Saint Peter’s went on to win the tournament to become the first 15th seed to ever reach the Elite Eight.

“For me personally, I definitely think about it a lot,” said Clayton, Iona’s leading scorer with 16.5 points per game. “We say the same things to the new guys, really the mindset is not to take anything lightly.”

When Iona hired Pitino three years ago, she always knew there was a possibility that he could leave for a bigger school.

Several sources believe that if the right program came along, he would make the move.

He has not hidden his displeasure at being part of a one-bid league and the structure of the MAAC tournament, which he says penalizes the top teams in the conference because of the lack of home field advantage.

But right now, Pitino has maintained his only focus is to return to the NCAA Tournament.

“Let’s go to Atlantic City and win,” he said. “We are currently working 12-13 hours a day and thinking about anything other than winning would be unfair.”

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