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Disappointment, hope, & college basketball in New York

Iona College hired Rick Pitino as its new head coach on Saturday. (REUTERS/Chris Keane)

Thursday, March 19, was no more than an ordinary Thursday this year. 

No steady stream of college basketball games, no early upsets, no brackets busted. 

Last week, the NCAA opted to cancel March Madness — the 68-team men’s basketball tournament that decides its national champion every year since 1939.

The call came less than 24 hours after an initial decision to play the tournament with no fans in attendance during a week that saw 13 teams punch automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. 

So instead of 68 teams seeing their names go on the fabled brackets and 40 games being played between Thursday and Sunday, the sporting world is relegated to another mundane, chilly spring weekend of living in the days of a pandemic. 

One of the largest stories that came out of March Madness’ cancellation was Hofstra University’s NCAA dreams being dashed after winning the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time. 

The Long Island school located in Hempstead, led by the wily veteran head coach in Joe Mihalich, punched its first ticket to the big dance in 19 years — when the program was a part of the America East and coached by a rising star named Jay Wright. You might have heard of him, he’s won a couple of national championships with Villanova.

It ended years of heartbreak in the Colonial for Hofstra, who always seemed to get the short end of the stick when it came to postseason time.

In the previous four seasons, they lost the CAA final twice. In 2015, they were ousted from the semifinals against William & Mary on an overtime corner three-pointer with eight-tenths of a second left.

In 2006, Hofstra beat George Mason twice, including in the CAA semifinals, but lost to UNC-Wilmington in the conference final.

Yet it was George Mason that got an at-large bid and made an improbable run to the NCAA Final Four.

Finally, in 2020, it was Hofstra’s turn. Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton did what so many before couldn’t in a nine-point victory over Northeastern as the nets were cut down in Washington, D.C. by the Long Islanders.

That was on a Tuesday night. 

Two days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled.

“We were gutted,” Mihalich told CBS Radio. “You feel like somebody just ripped your heart out, and that’s not without being sensitive to this global medical concern, because we are… but you can’t help but personalize it a bit. The players on this team who literally had their dream come true — win the conference tournament, the nets around their neck, climb up a ladder with scissors, all those things… later that dream turns into a nightmare.” 

It leaves the mid-major program to ponder “what if?” as hopes of lacing up and taking the floor at the NCAA Tournament returns to just another fleeting prospect. 

***

Elsewhere in the New York City area, on the fringe of the coronavirus containment zone enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the area of New Rochelle received a bit of news that would take their minds off the pandemic that has ransacked the area — at least for a moment. 

On Saturday, Iona College hired Rick Pitino as its new head coach, providing the disgraced Hall-of-Famer with a return to the college game. 

The 67-year-old had been exiled to coaching in Greece for three years after he was fired by Louisville for his part in a massive bribery scandal that rocked college basketball to its core. 

For Iona — a mid-major program that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) — it’s a win-win situation. 

Pitino provides a top-tier basketball mind to take over the program after long-time head coach Tim Cluess was forced to step down for health reasons. 

Cluess helped put Iona on the map and make them a force in the MAAC, making the NCAA Tournament six times in eight seasons from 2011-2019.

But that tradition took a backseat in 2020 with Cluess missing the season due to illness as the Gaels posted their first losing season since 2008-09.

While he’ll move to an advisory role moving forward, Pitino brings a high-profile name to the small school. 

In 30 seasons at the collegiate level with Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville, the Long Island native who also coached the Knicks is 621-271 with 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, seven trips to the Final Four, and two national championships. 

That resume — despite the scandal — will only heighten Iona’s standing within the college basketball landscape and offer the promise of returning to their MAAC dominance. 

The promise of a better tomorrow — whether it be for Hofstra or Iona — will have to wait for now, though. At the end of the day, the success of a college basketball team is trivial to what we’re dealing with.

But at least it provides us with something to look forward to.

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