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INDIANAPOLIS — Rick Pitino’s return to the NCAA men’s tournament was a short one.
Second-seeded Alabama was able to withstand a challenge from another small Catholic school coached by Pitino, holding off Iona 68-55 on Saturday. Herbert Jones led the Crimson Tide with 20 points and six rebounds and John Petty Jr. added 10 points and seven boards for Alabama, which will face the winner of UConn-Maryland, in the second round Monday. Isaiah Ross had 19 for the Gaels and Asante Gist had 16.
Though Iona is going home, the question now is where is Pitino going?
This was the first season at Iona for the Hall of Fame coach, who spent a year coaching in Greece’s professional league after an unceremonious exit at Louisville. Pitino has sworn that Iona will be his final job, but his name has already been floated for the opening at Indiana, and any school looking for a coach would be foolish not to make a run at a guy who has won 782 games and national titles with Kentucky and Louisville.
That Alabama had to work as hard as it did for Saturday’s win will only add to Pitino’s appeal. The Crimson Tide has one of the country’s most explosive offenses, leading the country in 3-pointers made and taken, and has a defense to match. But it found itself in a dog fight against the Gaels, who took a 43-40 lead after a 3-pointer by Berrick JeanLouis with 12:12 to play. If Alabama fans had a sickening feeling of déjà vu, well, they could be forgiven.
You might remember another time second-seeded Alabama ran into a small Catholic college in the NCAA men’s tournament. Then coaching Providence College, with a sharp-shooting guard named Billy Donovan, Pitino's sixth-seeded Friars upset the Crimson Tide in the Southeast Regional final to reach their first Final Four.
But Alabama was simply too deep for the Gaels. Juwan Gary had been scoreless until a putback with 11:24 to play. He would score six points during the decisive 18-4 run over the next five minutes as Alabama pulled away from the Gaels.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama beats Iona in men's NCAA tournament amid Rick Pitino job talk