Rick Pitino’s Iona team could be a good tournament bet

Iona Gaels coach Rick Pitino (left) and his team head out to the NCAA Tournament.  (Photo: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports)
Iona Gaels coach Rick Pitino (left) and his team head out to the NCAA Tournament. (Photo: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports)

If you’ve watched Iona play, you might not realize the Gaels come from one league to one bid.

Iona is long and athletic. They play a pressure defense that can take over a game. The offense finds high percentage shots. It’s a good team.

And they have a Hall of Fame coach.

We can have a conversation about Iona being a potentially worthwhile bet in next week’s NCAA Tournament after the Gaels won the MAAC Championship, beating Marist, 76-55, on Saturday night. They get the automatic MAAC auction. That means larger programs looking to speak to coach Rick Pitino will have to wait at least another week.

Iona will be a double-digit, but dangerous seed.

Rick Pitino returns to NCAA Tournament

Last year, Iona had a very good team and stumbled in the MAAC tournament. The mid-major fighters were disappointed not to have the chance to bet on the Gaels as the underdog in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Iona has done the job. Marist made the league game interesting in the second half, but Iona picked up the defense and pulled away for the blowout victory. The Gaels overwhelmed Marist on the stretch, showing just how good they can be.

Iona entered Saturday night’s game projected as the No. 13 seed in most fictional brackets. It’s hard to see the Gaels reaching the ever-dangerous No.12 line, but it could just mean a bigger gap for a first-round game.

Iona has some good players, including Conference Player of the Year Walter Clayton Jr. and efficient goaltender Daniss Jenkins. But the headliner is Pitino. Pitino has two national titles (one if you follow the NCAA lead and discard the vacant Louisville one) and has won everywhere but the Boston Celtics. Controversy follows Pitino and a scandal in Louisville is the reason he is in MAAC.

But Pitino has been so good with Iona and enough time has passed that a bigger program is ready to give him another chance. After Iona is made in the NCAA Tournament, of course.

Iona had another solid season

Iona enters the tournament at 27-7, and the Gaels went 17-3 in the league. They have won 14 in a row. Their last defeat dates back to January 27. Iona dominated her competition.

The problem with Iona’s selection in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is that the Gaels haven’t tested themselves against the best competition. They faced four top-100 ranked teams at KenPom this season, none past 52nd, and went 1-3. Last season, when the Gaels were 25-8 but didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, they beat Alabama and gave Florida trouble in a loss at the NIT.

Iona will need the right game, probably a team that doesn’t take care of the ball. A high Major with solid guards and a low turnover percentage could probably handle Iona’s defense, which will guard 94 feet.

No matter who Iona draws, Pitino will have the Gaels ready. They will not be overwhelmed athletically. This could be a team worth considering for an upset first-round pick.

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