Rick Pitino returns to NCAA Tournament coaching Iona to MAAC title

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Tyler Byrum
·3 min read
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Rick Pitino returns to NCAA Tournament coaching Iona to MAAC title originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Tournament. 

Three years removed from his firing at the University of Louisville, the former national championship head coach has gotten back to March Madness. Directing the Iona Gaels in his first season, Pitino's team ran through the MAAC tournament to claim the league's automatic berth. 

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Iona dealt with more than their share of coronavirus issues this season. The Gaels had a 51-day pause in the middle of the season where it was reported by the New York Post that nine players tested positive for the virus in that span. Additionally, Pitino announced that he had also tested positive after receiving his first dose of the vaccine. 

There were no less than three COVID-19-related pauses throughout the season for the program. By season's end, the Gaels only played 13 games of a maximum 27, posting an 8-5 record. In MAAC play they were 6-3, but due to the conference's seeding rules for the unique season, they were given the No. 9 seed. The MAAC seeded teams based on the number of wins and since Iona played the fewest it led to a lower seed. But they were clearly much more dangerous than that seeding indicated. 

En route to winning the title, the Gales knocked off the No. 1, 5, 7 and 8 seeds. The Gaels capped their MAAC championship run by beating Fairfield 60-51. It was Iona's fifth MAAC title in the past six.

Pitino became the third head coach to take five separate programs (Louisville, Kentucky, Providence and Boston University) to the NCAA Tournament.

Iona will be one of 68 teams that will get to compete for the national championship starting next week. The program will be seeded unfavorably due to the nature of the league and limited games on the schedule. ESPN's Joe Lunardi projects the Gaels as a No. 15 seed as of this writing. 

But never count out Pitino in win-and-go home scenarios. Pitino is 53-18 in the Big Dance, posting the second-best win percentage of active coaches. 

Pitino famously coached Louisville to a national title in 2013 and Kentucky in 1996, making him the first coach in NCAA history to win a championship at two different schools. The 2013 title was eventually stripped from the Cardinals program following the investigation of an escort sex scandal and all wins were vacated. It led to another first in the NCAA, when the championship was taken away from the school. 

Another scandal rocked the program in 2017 where the school was accused of paying recruits. An Adidas reportedly executive conspired to pay $100,000 to the family of a top-ranked recruit to play at Louisville and then become an Adidas athlete when he turned pro. 

Ultimately, the two scandals led to Pitino being fired for cause by Louisville following the investigations and the punishments handed down by the NCAA. 

After a stint coaching in Greece, Pitino returned stateside to Iona. In the year's leading up to his hiring, he was a popular rumored coaching candidate among many high-profiled openings. But he returned to a lower level in Iona and is now back in the tournament.