Eventually, the cream rose. The power-conference team started playing like one.
Iona wasn’t going to pull off a stunner in Rick Pitino’s return to college basketball. It wasn’t going to upset 19-point favorite Seton Hall in its home opener.
The Gaels did scare the Pirates for about 25 minutes. They did have them down nine points late in the first half. For a team that was down two injured starters, had only two returning contributors available and just recently returned to practice after a two-week pause due to a positive COVID-19 test, that spoke volumes.
“You’re talking about a Hall of Fame coach,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, Pitino’s assistant at Louisville and with the Celtics, said over Zoom. “I wasn’t shocked we were down nine.
“They’re exactly what I thought they were going to be. They’re extremely well-coached, they play hard and they are going to win a lot of games because, in my opinion, he’s the greatest college coach ever.”
Seton Hall pulled away in the second half on the strength of a 24-5 run, coasting to an 86-64 victory at fan-less Prudential Center in Newark. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden took over, combining for 59 points and 22 rebounds. Iona didn’t have an answer. The Gaels wore down. Their jumpers stopped falling and their defensive intensity dropped.
When Pitino, the former Louisville, Kentucky and Providence coach who spent the last two years coaching professionally in Greece, called Willard to schedule this game on Saturday, he knew he was running into a buzz saw. Getting a game in was more important after the layoff.
“I’m not pissed off that I lost, because I love Kevin,” Pitino joked. “If Kevin wasn’t the coach, I’d probably want to go out and drink a quart of scotch.
“It was excellent for us. Getting them in Madison Square Garden next year will even be better,” he added, referring to the return game the teams have agreed to play next year.
He threw his players into the deep end of the pool right away. Early on, the Gaels were able to stay afloat.
There were some bright spots despite the lopsided loss, even without starting point guard Asante Gist and 7-foot-1 freshman forward Osborn Shema. Freshman big man Nelly Junior Joseph showed potential, notching 13 points, six rebounds and two blocks. So did freshman guard Ryan Myers (nine points) of Brooklyn. Senior Isaiah Ross scored a team-high 23 points, though Pitino wasn’t happy with his performance, pointing to the zero in the assist column.
“I thought our defensive intensity was great in the first half. If we would’ve played the same type of defense in the second half, we had a chance to win the game,” Pitino said. “Overall, it was terrific. We are going to be a really good basketball team.”
Pitino has talked about wanting to turn Iona into the Gonzaga of the East, but he has also stressed patience after a limited offseason due to COVID-19 and an almost completely new and extremely young team.
He has insisted this will be his last coaching job after a Hall of Fame career that includes two national championships, Final Four berths with three different schools and a 647-272 all-time record. It was uncertain whether Pitino would ever coach again after he was fired by Louisville in October 2017.
In March, Iona made the stunning hire. Monday night, he was on the sideline.
“I’m super-excited to be back,” Pitino said. “I thank the president almost once or twice a week for giving me this opportunity to coach at Iona. I think it’s a special little campus, a special little place.
“I feel we’re going to make it big time.”
After the game, Willard revealed he tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago when there was an outbreak of the virus within his program. He didn’t suffer any symptoms other than losing his sense of smell for five days.