Iona College was put on a national spotlight in mid-March when they hired Hall of Famer, two-time national champion Rick Pitino to be the basketball team’s next head coach. However, before we talk about Pitino, let’s acknowledge another incredible coach, Tim Cluess. Of course, we all wish Cluess didn’t have to step down from Iona’s head coaching position. In his time at Iona, he turned them into a dominant mid-major program that made many appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Without Cluess’s success, Pitino would’ve never even thought about coaching at Iona. Although he’s coming in with extremely high expectations from Iona fans, Pitino’s first off-season with the Gaels has already been very successful and he has given us a glimpse of how he’s going to elevate the program to new heights.
First, let’s take a look at the players Pitino is bringing in. In about two months, Pitino got commitments from a whopping eight recruits for the 2020-21 season. After Iona struggled through an uncharacteristic losing season last year, it was important for Pitino to change the roster in a big way, and that’s just what he did. With that said, it is not the quantity, but the quality of the future Gaels that shows what a difference maker Pitino has already been.
Many of next year’s recruits chose Iona over bigger, high-major schools. Berrick Jeanlouis, a JUCO transfer from Florida Southwestern State College, chose the Gaels over Wichita State. In recent history, Wichita State has been a fantastic basketball school. The Shockers are coming off a stellar 23-8 season, playing in the tough AAC conference. They even made it to the final four in 2013. Wichita State is an elite program that has gotten a great deal of national attention this past decade. Without a legendary coach like Rick Pitino, choosing Wichita State over Iona would’ve been a no-brainer for Jeanlouis. Tahlik Chavez, another JUCO transfer, also chose Iona over another AAC school. The sharpshooting point guard was heavily recruited by Tulsa, a team that finished a strong 21-10 and had a good chance to win the AAC tournament if the season wasn’t cut short due to the pandemic. Why would he choose a MAAC team that went 12-17 last year over a top team in the AAC? The answer is simple: He wants the opportunity to be coached by one of the best ever. Similarly, incoming freshman Johan Crafoord committed to Iona over Boston College, an ACC school. Crafoord is passing up the opportunity to play in a conference with teams such as Duke, UNC, and Louisville simply because he wants to play for Rick Pitino. Nelly Junior Joseph is another freshman who decided to come play for Iona despite the fact that he had an offer from Mississippi State and was heavily recruited by Wichita State. Last but certainly least, Osborn Shema, the 7’1 forward who is transferring from New Mexico Military Institute, chose Iona over Rutgers as well as Florida State, a team that is expected to be one of the best teams in the nation next year. Players are valuing being coached by Rick Pitino over going to a well-known school in a big conference.
Moving on from the 2020 recruiting class, we are even seeing the “Pitino Effect” by looking at the 2021 prospects that he’s recruiting. The biggest example of this is KJ Adams, a 4-star, 6-foot-7 power forward who recently announced his final 10 schools. Every school besides Iona is a high-major, which shows the kind of respect top high school recruits have for Rick Pitino. Being mentioned with any high-major school is a great look for Iona, but the fact that they’re on the same list as a “blue blood” program like Kansas is a major eye opener. Looking towards future recruiting classes, it is clear that Pitino is planning on bringing in players that can bring the Iona program to a whole new level.
From a scheduling standpoint, Iona fans should be thrilled to know that Pitino is putting together a solid out of conference schedule, which has been just terrible in recent years. Not only have they had brutal travel schedules in the past few years, but they’ve also had trouble finding any out of conference home games at all. This was especially true last season when they only had one out of conference home game! Although Pitino has yet to schedule a game against a big time team like Kentucky, he’s already scheduled home games against Harvard, Morgan State, Albany, and Loyola Maryland, as well as a game at Madison Square Garden against Stony Brook. Having so many home games and local games in general will be a great way for the players to ease into the season. This is especially helpful to Iona because they’re such a young team and most of the players aren’t used to traveling cross-country for games. It may not seem like a big deal, but by putting together a schedule with a good amount of out of conference home games, Pitino’s young team should be in good physical and mental condition when it comes time for important conference games. Having home games early in the season will also keep the fans engaged before conference play. The schedule isn’t even finalized yet and it already seems as though Iona will be looking at one of the best out of conference schedules they’ve had in a long time, and this is largely due to the fact that teams want to come and play against Rick Pitino.
Iona is already experiencing the benefits of signing Rick Pitino both from a recruiting and scheduling standpoint. He is bringing in arguably the most talented roster Iona’s ever seen, and there is definitely potential for next year’s team to be special. Obviously, with such a new team, there will inevitably be growing pains and bumps along the road. That being said, I truly believe that Pitino is setting them up for success. When it all comes together, the sky is the limit for the 2020-21 Iona Gaels.