ALBANY — Rick Pitino has given Iona an up-close and personal view of how a Hall of Fame coach can impact a program through the sheer force of his personality and basketball genius.
He has been the right man at the right time for Iona, just as Iona has been the right school and the right job at the right time for him.
Basketball utopia for the Gaels at a time when they needed another in a long line of winning coaches, and basketball utopia for Pitino at a time in his life when he needed a team, needed another chance after all the NCAA turbulence, even if utopia often ends in the blink of an eye in March and he was forced to walk across to congratulate Dan Hurley and Connecticut on Friday for their 87-63 victory over Iona in the West Region first-rounder at MVP Arena.
Now what for Rick Pitino?
“I really have no idea what the future brings,” Pitino said.
There was no limo with Lou Carnesecca waiting inside observed outside MVP Arena to whisk him away to a certain university on Utopia Parkway, where a fan base searching desperately for a savior is waiting with open arms to for its dream.
King Of Queens.
Because St. John’s hasn’t had a Hall of Fame coach … since Lou Carnesecca.
Virtually everyone agrees that it would be a match made in heaven, the New Yawk Native Son returning to a different Big East than the one he treasured when he coached for two seasons at Providence, but the Big East nevertheless, with UConn back.
So when the scoreboard clock struck zero, St. John’s was officially on the clock waiting for Saint Rick.
Red Storm Rising in prayer.
“I don’t know if it’s right for me, another job, I don’t know that,” Pitino said.
He told The Post he would have to research St. John’s to decide whether it is indeed the right job for him.
“You don’t buy houses without looking at the garage and the upstairs and the kitchen and everything,” Pitino said. “You just don’t buy a house.”
But sometimes the house buys you.
Roll out the red carpet, fellas.
Pitino knew what he was up against on Friday, a program that Hurley had rebuilt from the ground up, with Final Four ambitions. A deep team that had Iona at its mercy on the glass (45-29).
Just not right away.
The Gaels played with no fear, played to win, and that reminded everyone inside MVP Arena, especially shell-shocked Huskies fans, why Pitino, national champion at Kentucky and Louisville, is the 70-year-old Secretariat of his sport.
Pitino cajoled, encouraged, inspired, even growled when the moment demanded it, crouched to play defense alongside his players the way few men his age can.
They were playing the great game they had to play against UConn, authored by the great Hall of Fame coach. Their best half of the year. The small Iona contingent across from the Gaels bench was on its feet screaming as Pitino marched into the halftime locker room with a 39-37 lead.
Alas, it’s a 40-minute game.
Goliath mercilessly ripped the slingshot from Pitino with its destructive defense and characteristic swagger and stomped on it, and Bill Murray, no joke, danced in the stands (his son, Luke, is a UConn assistant). Jordan Hawkins — 0-for-6 in the first half — howled at the start of the second half to ignite the Huskies and finish with 13 points, and big man Adama Sanogo. an indomitable beast inside (22 of his season-high 28 points in the second half, 13 rebounds), carried the Huskies the rest of the way and knocked the last vestiges of hope out of the Gaels … who played their worst half of the year.
Thirteenth-seeded Iona’s players had tuned out questions about Pitino possibly moving on. All they were interested in was shocking UConn and making history for a school that officially had been 0-15 in the NCAA Tournament.
But there they were after the record dropped to 0-16, confronting the worst of March Sadness: the end of a dream and not knowing whether the Hall of Fame coach they revere would ever coach them again.
“The level of excellence is just through the roof every single day,” Daniss Jenkins said. “If you want to be challenged, if you want to be a great player, this is the coach you want to play for.”
How devastating would it be to the school if he does leave?
“I think it will be pretty devastating,” Jenkins said, “but that’s life.”
Red Storm Rising in prayer … for their dream King of Queens.