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Mandatory Credit: Peter Ackerman/Gannett New Jersey via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The dynasty continues. The Iona Gaels are heading to their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament and the first under head coach Rick Pitino.

Danny Small

The Iona Gaels are an institution in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. It’s as simple as that. The Gaels have a stranglehold on the conference in recent years, winning five consecutive MAAC Championships. They bested Fairfield by a score of [SCORE] to add another MAAC Championship trophy to the display case in New Rochelle.

Legendary coach Rick Pitino is already making waves in his new home. Iona was one of the hardest-hit teams in the country when it comes to COVID this season. It didn’t matter. Pitino still had his squad ready to play in Atlantic City. They overcame a tough draw that featured Siena in the quarterfinals to win it all.

MAAC leading scorer Isaiah Ross bounced back after his head-scratching semifinals game. Ross poured in 13 points and grabbed five rebounds, but this wasn’t a one-man show. Asante Gist added 18 points while Nelly Junior Joseph dominated the paint with a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds).

But put the offensive numbers aside because Iona won this game, and the MAAC Championship, because of their defense. Pitino’s imprint on the Gaels can be seen the most on the defensive end. Iona kept it simple on defense with simple man-to-man ball pressure for most of the year, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Next Steps For Iona

โ€œI have to learn the [MAAC], but I do think Iona is a sleeping giant,โ€ Pitino told the New York Post in December. โ€œAnd I judge that by some of the guys I can recruit now. I do believe in the Gonzaga model of recruiting, the St. Maryโ€™s model of recruiting, that 40 to 50 percent of your team has to be foreign players.

โ€œI donโ€™t know if we can do a Gonzaga, but I know we can do a St. Maryโ€™s, and I know we can build it to become one of the strongest programs on the East Coast. But thatโ€™s going to take great recruiting and meticulous player development, and those two things I think weโ€™re off to a great start.โ€

If Slick Rick wants to start modeling the program after Gonzaga, winning in the NCAA Tournament is the next step for the program. Iona has gone to the Big Dance five times in five chances, but the program’s last win in the NCAA Tournament came in 1980.

For all the success Iona had under former head coach Tim Cluess, they were never able to make it over the hump on the biggest stage of all. Pitino says he packed enough clothes for a trip to the Final Four. The Hall of Famer has never lacked confidence.

A Final Four run is obviously unlikely for the Gaels, but a first-round upset or even a surprise trip to the Sweet Sixteen isn’t out of the realm of possibility. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Gaels as a No. 15 seed as of Saturday.

We talked about how Iona’s defense has been mostly meat and potatoes man-to-man so far this year, but don’t be surprised if Pitino has something up his sleeve. Look for some exotic looks in the full court and a bit more variety in the halfcourt with 2-3 matchup zones. Iona is playing their best basketball of the season and anything is possible with Pitino roaming the sidelines.

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