With Pitino’s Departure from Iona, What’s Next for Men’s Basketball in the MAAC?

Rick Pitino, we hardly knew ye.

Last week, Pitino departed from the head coaching position with the Iona Gaels.

After Iona’s NCAA tournament loss to UConn on Mar. 17, it was announced Pitino had agreed to a six-year deal to become the head coach of St. John’s men’s basketball program in the Big East. The news was posted everywhere on mainstream basketball news outlets.

Of course, this makes sense. Though very successful in the MAAC, Pitino never intended to end his career there, stuck in national obscurity in a one-bid league.

Following his departure from coaching in the United States after 2017 with scandals from his tenure at Louisville tarnishing his namesake in the NCAA and beyond, it was Iona that reached out to him about returning to college hoops while he coached professionally overseas.

As a result, his impact on the MAAC was immediate. After Iona struggled with a 12-17 record in 2019-20, Pitino’s three-year stint led to two MAAC championships, corresponding trips to the NCAA twice, and the NIT in the 2021-22 season. While former Iona head coach Tim Cluess’s squad was a great force in the MAAC, Pitino’s short trip was simply unstoppable.

But now, he’s off to the bright lights and big city with the allure of Madison Square Garden and the Big East, the conference in which he’s spent a significant portion of his collegiate coaching career.

So what’s next for the MAAC? Will Iona continue to control the conference?

For starters, one big mystery was the rather large shoes to fill in the Iona head coaching vacancy. That vacancy was quickly filled and brings some rather big headlines with it. 

The same day Pitino was introduced at St. John’s, the Gaels announced his replacement in the form of the most recent Cinderella story of the NCAA tournament, coach Tobin Anderson of the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights.

Anderson led the Knights to a 16-seed in March Madness– despite not even winning their NEC conference tournament game. Merrimack College, the winners of the NEC 67-66 over FDU, weren’t eligible to participate in the national tournament, kickstarting an unfathomable Cinderella victory over the powerhouse Purdue Boilermakers.

Despite the only recent rise to fame, the 2022-23 season was only Anderson’s first year as a Division I head coach. He’s certainly come a long way with over 10 years in Division III basketball, starting his head coaching career in 1996 with Clarkson, followed by a successful seven-year run with Hamilton College’s program. 

Surprisingly enough, Anderson has his own MAAC ties. In fact, his first coaching experience at the Division I coaching level was as an assistant for Siena on Mitch Buonaguro’s staff.

After six Division II NCAA berths with St.Thomas Aquinas of the East Coast Conference and a thrilling Cinderella story, Anderson returns to the most prestigious men’s basketball program in the MAAC as of late with giant shoes to fill– shoes previously filled by one of the most decorated college basketball coaches of all time.

There’s one glaring disadvantage to his fresh start– the lack of MAAC player of the year Walter Clayton Jr. and forward Nelly Junior Joseph. Earlier this week, both 1st team all-MAAC players entered the transfer portal according to Verbal Commits. Something tells me they might be “Red Storm” chasing, following in their former coach’s footsteps to the Big East.

But that’s not all. Two other Iona players, senior Quinn Slazinski and freshman All-MAAC rookie Cruz Davis, have also departed from the Gaels. They currently lead the MAAC in most players in the portal. Not exactly a stat you want to be leading in, just ask Marist.

With the multitude of transfers in and out of the conference last spring, who knows how Anderson will manage the portal? 

The program has two very attractive traits: being the MAAC’s best and having a coach who happened to make history just 10 days ago. There’s a chance that presence alone will allow the Gaels to not skip a beat.

On the flip side, the MAAC tournament proved that anything can happen in this topsy-turvy league.

Let’s start with the runners-up, shall we? John Dunne and his team deserve a lot of praise; the coach turned an underwhelming regular season into a first-time MAAC championship appearance for the Red Foxes. And while Marist fell quite hard in the final stretch of the game, it gave the Gaels a run for their money, something you can’t quite pick up from the final score. 

I am nowhere near suggesting Marist has a chance to win the regular season title or even finish top five in the standings, but the Red Foxes proved that any team on any given day can stand up to a Goliath. Needless to say, St. Peter’s definitely proved that in its Elite Eight run in 2022.

With some definite adjustments taking place in the program, Iona looks like it won’t quite be the powerhouse it was under Pitino.

Consider the talent staying in the MAAC. Though junior Noah Thomasson declared for the NBA Draft while retaining college eligibility, chances are the first-team All-MAAC forward from Niagara will be back to help his team make a run for the MAAC title. Breakout guard Javien McCollum and a deep Siena roster could easily push into the contender threshold. 

Even farther down, three of the MAAC all-rookies come from Canisius, St. Peter’s, and Marist, the Red Foxes’ very own Isaiah Brickner. With plenty of talented rookies in the conference– and Iona losing their best rookie in Cruz Davis– things are bound to shake up.

Pitino is, without a doubt, the most notable coach to have ever come through the MAAC, and rightfully so with his accomplishments in the NCAA and dominance in his three-year tenure. The reality is that the conference will be changing very soon. Aside from the St. Peter’s shake-up, Iona has seen six berths in the last seven years. 

It’s now worth questioning which team could create a new dominant narrative in the MAAC.

Edited by Jonathan Kinane and Ricardo Martinez

Photo from Marist Athletics

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