Working his first college coaching gig more than three years removed from his controversial ouster at Louisville, Iona coach Rick Pitino stood masked up but overmatched Monday by a talented Seton Hall club on the opposite sideline as his Gaels fell 86-64 in their season debut.
For Pitino, the game -- even in a loss -- was the culmination of a winding journey that's had plenty of turns since he was fired from his former post in 2017. After his ouster at Louisville, he spent most of the last two years coaching overseas for Panathinaikos, flirting with coaching jobs in the states, and litigating against his former employer. But Pitino quickly jumped at the chance to get back in the college game, undertaking an effort at Iona to revive the program on the heels of the resignation of long-time coach Tim Cluess.
"Tim Cluess has done a spectacular job creating success and a winning spirit," Pitino said in March of the program he took over.
On Monday, though, he quickly realized what a big undertaking he's accepted. After his hiring this spring, he quickly raked in the top-rated recruiting class in the MAAC replete with seven commitments, but it's a process that will take time, he says. Falling 22 points shy against a team that lost to Louisville just last week is a painful reminder of just how much things have changed and how big a job lies ahead.
"We gotta get them back to Tim Cluess' level, then take them to a higher level, like Jimmy V did," he said after the game. "We are going to be a really good basketball team. I think once we hit January-February, we're gonna have so many close moments, it's gonna knock you out."
Iona put forth a spirited effort and led 37-35 at halftime, but mustered just 27 second-half points as Hall scooted by with 51 of its own in the final 20 minutes of play.
Seton Hall had four players finish scoring in double figures led by Jared Rhoden, who had 26 on 7-of-14 shooting. Sandro Mamukelashvili added 18 points while Myles Cale poured in 15 of his own. The Pirates shot 55% from the floor and 32% from the 3-point line, a staggering level of efficiency considering it was done without star transfer Bryce Aiken, who is sidelined indefinitely with an ankle injury.