Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino is heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he lost his high-profile job at Louisville four years ago.
Pitino, now the head coach at Iona, piloted the Gaels (12-5) to a Metro Atlantic Athletic Tournament final victory, defeating Fairfield 60-51 on Saturday to receive the MAAC’s automatic bid and be among the 68 teams set to play in Indianapolis next week.
Iona finished in third place in the regular season, going 6-3 in league play. The Gaels had more than a month of postponements due to COVID-19, not playing all of January. Pitino was one of the outspoken coaches critical of the NCAA for starting the season in late November amid the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pitino is coaching at a mid-major school and not a power conference, but he inherited a good program that had reached the past four NCAA Tournaments under former coach Tim Cluess.
Iona becomes the fifth school Pitino has led to the NCAA Tournament, tying him with Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith. The others are Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.
The 68-year-old coach, who guided Louisville and Kentucky to national championships during his four-decades-long college basketball coaching career, last coached in the NCAA Tournament in 2017 when the Cardinals were upset in the second round by Michigan.
Pitino has spent 30 seasons coaching college basketball but was fired as Louisville’s coach in 2017 amid a pay-for-play scheme with a recruit. He guided Kentucky to a national title in 1996 and Louisville to a championship in 2013. But a sex-for-pay scandal forced his Cardinals to vacate their title.
During his time away from the NCAA, Pitino spent the past year coaching Panathinaikos B.C. in Greece, where he guided the pro team to a Greek Cup last year.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.