Iona and Rick Pitino’s focus on MAAC Tournament

For months, the rumors have been out there.

Whispers that Rick Pitino wants one more bite of the high-major apple, particularly after the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, which reviews certain NCAA Division I infractions, exonerated him following its ruling in the case against Louisville from his days at its coach.

Two northeast Big East schools — Georgetown and St. John’s — are expected to have openings. Pitino, who doesn’t have a buyout, has also been linked to Central Florida, which is moving to the Big 12 and could part ways with Johnny Dawkins.

But to the 70-year-old Pitino, and his Iona College players, that’s all noise.

He hasn’t talked to them about it. They don’t seem concerned about it.

Two of the Gaels’ top players, Walter Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins, both told The Post it isn’t something they have worried about at all, that their only concern is finishing this successful year off right.

Iona coach Rick Pitino said he's concentrating on the MAAC tournament and not any future new jobs.
Iona coach Rick Pitino said he’s concentrating on the MAAC tournament and not any future new jobs.
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“The one thing I can assure you of is, the players pay absolutely zero attention to that,” said Pitino, who has coached two national champions and reached seven Final Fours. “Now other people pay attention to it, but the staff, myself and the players pay no attention. The internet is not going to hire a coach, I can assure you. It never has and it never will.”

The season has seemed to back up the assertion that the rumors haven’t distracted the Gaels.

Iona (24-7) has won 11 straight games (eight by double figures) and is the No. 1 seed in the MAAC Tournament, which it will begin Wednesday in a quarterfinal match with Mount St. Mary’s.

The Gaels won the league’s regular-season crowd for the second straight year, this time by four games.

Pitino prepared them well for league play by putting together a non-conference schedule ranked 65th in the country, a slate that included CAA regular-season champion Hofstra, American East champion Vermont, St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis of the Atlantic 10, SMU and New Mexico, his son Richard’s team.

Daniss Jenkins, going up for a shot earlier in the season, said there is "no ceiling" for Iona.
Daniss Jenkins, going up for a shot earlier in the season, said there is “no ceiling” for Iona.
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Iona looks the part of the heavy conference tournament favorite.

It is No. 1 in the MAAC in points scored, field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defense, turnover margin, assists and blocked shots.

It has a NET ranking of 66 and KenPom ranking of 78, very strong metrics for a mid-major program.

Clayton and junior forward Nelly Junior Joseph were selected to the All-MAAC first team, and Jenkins was on the second team.

“We all know if we guard and come ready to play and run our offense with great pace, then the sky’s the limit,” Jenkins said. “There’s no ceiling for this team. That’s been our motto the whole year. We’re in control of our own destiny.”

Iona star Walter Clayton Jr. is looking for some redemption after the Gaels' loss in last year's MAAC tourney.
Iona star Walter Clayton Jr. is looking for some redemption after the Gaels’ loss in last year’s MAAC tourney.
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It all has led to this point for Iona, which was one-and-done in the MAAC Tournament a year ago after winning it in Pitino’s first season and putting a scare into fourth-seeded Alabama in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Clayton thinks about that 2022 quarterfinal loss to Rider frequently. He missed the front end of a crucial 1-and-1 in the defeat that could’ve iced the game.

Saint Peter’s ended up winning the tournament and became the first 15th seed to ever reach the Elite Eight.

“For me personally, it’s definitely on my mind a lot,” said Clayton, Iona’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game. “We’ve been saying the same things to the new guys, really the mentality is don’t take anything lightly.”

When Iona hired Pitino three years ago, it always knew there was a possibility he could leave for a bigger school.

Several sources believe if the right program came calling, he would make the move.

He hasn’t hid his displeasure at being in a one-bid league and the MAAC Tournament structure, which he believes puts the top teams in the conference at a disadvantage because there is no home-court advantage.

But right now, Pitino has insisted his only focus is on getting back to the NCAA Tournament.

“Let’s get down to Atlantic City and win,” he said. “We’re putting in 12-13 hour days right now and to think about anything except winning would be an injustice.”