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Does Iona basketball feel pressure to emulate Saint Peter's historic March Madness run?

Saint Peter's, last season's MAAC champion, soaked in the spotlight and the attention that came with being a Cinderella in its historic NCAA Tournament run.

The Peacocks' strut to the Elite Eight as a 15-seed, achieving numerous never-before-done feats in their unlikely journey.

Meanwhile, Iona was recovering from an upset loss to Rider in the MAAC quarterfinals, before being ousted in the opening round of the NIT.

Was there any envy?

"Yes, no, kind of – we all know what we could've done, and I know we could've had our run as well," Iona senior and MAAC defensive player of the year Berrick JeanLouis said. "We were a great team last year, but we fell short because Rider played a great game. Saint Peter's, they played great defense, then their offense came along and they made a great run. I feel like we could've done that too as well, but things happen, so we didn't get our chance to. We do now."

Iona's Berrick JeanLouis rises up for a dunk.
Iona's Berrick JeanLouis rises up for a dunk.

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Iona's long-awaited moment is almost here, and it doesn't plan on wasting its opportunity at the NCAA Tournament.

It'll be the second appearance in the Rick Pitino era.

The Gaels aim to go as far as possible, but they aren't making any declarations ahead of time, nor do they plan on trying to emulate the Peacocks or try to one-up them.

"Since I was a kid, I dreamt of this moment to play in this tournament, so just feeling great," Iona sophomore and MAAC player of the year Walter Clayton Jr. said. "It does feel a little surreal still, but we'll probably grasp it all once we got on the court in Albany. It just feels good.

"(Saint Peter's) had a great run, but we're not looking at it at all. We're looking at it as it's us against us, not worried about anybody else."

Iona guard Walter Clayton Jr. (1) tries to get past Niagara guard Noah Thomasson (21) during the first half at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall on March 10, 2023 in Atlantic City, N.J.
Iona guard Walter Clayton Jr. (1) tries to get past Niagara guard Noah Thomasson (21) during the first half at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall on March 10, 2023 in Atlantic City, N.J.

Iona is riding a 14-game winning streak entering Friday's NCAA Tournament first-round game. The Gaels are 27-7, but they know UConn will be a big step up in competition.

The university and its fans are starved for an NCAA Tournament win. Although the Gaels have won numerous MAAC championships and are no stranger to the Big Dance, they haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1980.

Iona is 1-15 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, but its lone win, an 84-78 victory over Holy Cross in the 1980 NCAA Tournament, was later vacated by the NCAA after standout center and future Iona coach Jeff Ruland broke amateurism rules midway through the season.

"Going into this tournament, there's pressure to win, but we don't worry about that," Iona junior Daniss Jenkins said. "If we take care of the things we can take care of, take each game one at a time, then we're going to try to come out, try to get a great scout and go in with a lot of confidence."

Iona University's Daniss Jenkins (5) puts up a shot over Mt. St. Mary's Dola Adebayo (4) as Iona hosts Mount St. Mary in men's basketball at Iona University in New Rochelle on Friday, February 3, 2023.
Iona University's Daniss Jenkins (5) puts up a shot over Mt. St. Mary's Dola Adebayo (4) as Iona hosts Mount St. Mary in men's basketball at Iona University in New Rochelle on Friday, February 3, 2023.

While they would love to break the long winless drought at the NCAA Tournament, the players will unanimously tell you that the hard part is actually over.

"There's no pressure at all," JeanLouis said of the NCAA Tournament. "I feel like there's more pressure to win the MAAC Tournament because once you lose the MAAC, you're done. No automatic bid, none of that, so I feel like there's more pressure to win the MAAC just to get to the tournament. We did that, that was the hard part. Now, let's just go to work."

Even Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino felt his time coaching in the MAAC is unlike any other past experience.

"I say it all the time, when I was in Kentucky and Louisville, I felt no pressure," Pitino said. "I'm sitting there saying, are you going to be a 1-seed, 2-seed or 3-seed, and if you lost in the conference playoffs, you might drop a seed. Here (in the MAAC), you don't win those three (tournament) games, you're out. It's a good thing, pressure is a privilege and it certainly is a privilege, but it was there in a big way."

Iona coach Rick Pitino (center) looks on during a Selection Sunday watch party at Iona University on March 12, 2023.
Iona coach Rick Pitino (center) looks on during a Selection Sunday watch party at Iona University on March 12, 2023.

This will be Iona's 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance as a double-digit seed, a streak that dates back to 1984.

Unlike its last three trips though, it will be a No. 13 seed. Before that, the Gaels were a No. 15 or No. 16 seed, and typically served as fodder for top-seeded teams primed for deep March Madness runs.

Every seed line the Gaels are able to climb helped, but fourth-seeded UConn will still be a tough challenge.

"The reason Iona hasn't been able to (win an NCAA Tournament) game is they've always had a bad seed, but we played a very good non-conference schedule and that's why we got a 13-seed," Pitino said. "But this is no picnic playing Connecticut."

Iona will have to transition from being the perennial favorite at a conference level, to being the underdog at the Big Dance, but after securing its spot in a one-bid league, it feels more relaxed and ready than ever.

"Basketball, because of the three-point shot, it's a game of runs," Pitino said. "Anything can happen with the three-point shot. If you go cold from the three and the other team gets hot, you control tempo and turn them over, so many underdogs can win."

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Iona and Rick Pitino, MAAC champions, ready for NCAA Tournament