ALBANY, N.Y. — The Rick Pitino sweepstakes are officially on.
Pitino's upset-minded Iona Gaels made it entertaining, competitive and had the affair in doubt for 20 minutes against No. 4 UConn on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But when the teams emerged from the locker room after halftime, Connecticut reminded the nation why it's been ranked among the top teams in college basketball for a majority of the season: Huskies 87, Gaels 63.
UConn will move on to play Saint Mary's on Sunday in the second round. That can wait.
The story Friday in New York's capital city was all about New York's most eligible college basketball coach. Reading the tea leaves, Iona's loss likely means Pitino has coached his last game with the Gaels after three seasons. The industry has been abuzz with Pitino's future going on close to a month at this point.
He stopped short, however, of going that far in his postgame press conference.
"I really don't have an answer to it," Pitino said when asked if this would be his last game at Iona, later adding, "I really haven't put any thought into it at all."
More Pitino: "I don't know if it's right for me, another job. I don't know that."
Does anyone actually believe this?
Here's what we know:
- St. John's has privately reached out to Pitino's camp about coaching the Red Storm, as CBS Sports previously reported. School president Rev. Brian Shanley has been putting in work for weeks to bring Pitino to Queens. In recent days, Pitino spoke openly with the media about the possibility while also admitting he doesn't even know how to get to St. John's campus or where it is. (Seriously.)
- Georgetown, a job Pitino would also seemingly be a great fit at, is not involved. Sources told CBS Sports the school has not made contact to this point and is pursuing other candidates. Perhaps Iona's season being over changes that calculus, otherwise that would narrow down the field for Pitino.
- So, who is at the top of Georgetown's list of candidates? The leader at this stage is Providence coach Ed Cooley, sources told CBS Sports. Cooley is a Providence native and a sacred son of that city. Could he find the gumption to leave PC and remain in the Big East at Georgetown? People around Providence's program have thought it would never happen, but those convictions have wavered as of late. What is undeniably true as of Friday night: Cooley did nothing to cool the rumors he's seriously considering the Hoyas' opening.
Ed Cooley: ‘There are a lot of decisions I need to make, a lot of thinking I need to do. But I need to be there for our players.’ pic.twitter.com/KIQrscEtFi— Kevin McNamara (@KevinMcNamara33) March 18, 2023
If Cooley leaves Providence, would Pitino covet that job over St. John's? It certainly would make sense if it's the case. Pitino took the Friars to a Final Four in 1987. He coached Billy Donovan, the same Billy Donovan that Pitino referenced, unprompted, on Friday after Iona's loss. But does Providence want Pitino? Maybe it should — there isn't a more proven candidate in this year's carousel, obviously — but it's unknown whether it would put Pitino at the top of the list if Cooley departs.
This is all setting the table for fascinating Big East drama if Cooley does in fact leave the place he's longed referred to as his dream job.
All eyes are on Cooley and Pitino — and what a shakeup to the Big East all of this could be. As the likes of UConn, Marquette, Creighton and Xavier play into the weekend, the conference is providing juicy plot lines away from the cacophony of the NCAA Tournament.
"I have really no idea what the future may bring because I've got to look at the grand scheme of things about winning, and winning is very important because we all work so hard, every coach works so hard," Pitino said.
At this stage, a decision on Pitino's future is expected in the week, sources told CBS Sports.
"I would expect this thing to move fast," a source said Friday.
My read: I would think Pitino is visiting St. John's no later than Monday to at least get a sense of the place and figure out if this is the spot to which he wants to jump.
"You don't buy houses without looking at the garage and the upstairs and the kitchen and everything," Pitino said about St. John's. "You don't just buy a house."
At 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, the septuagenarian briskly left the dais, dipped down the five steps of metal stairs attached to it, made a hard left after passing through the black curtains and beelined for Iona's locker room.
"I still exercise like a demon," Iona coach Rick Pitino told CBS Sports in February.
He proved that true on his near-sprint back to the locker room on Friday.
A horde of media hoofed it in Pitino's wake after he spoke, hoping to glean any more clarity. There would be none. Not here. Pitino kept his gait straight and quickly disappeared behind a door with an Iona logo taped to the outside.
"Coach won't be taking any more questions tonight," an NCAA representative said.
The answers are coming, and soon.
Seventy years old and as eligible a coach as he's been in more than a decade. What was once though impossible now seems inevitable: Rick Pitino's magnificent grand return to the big leagues of college basketball appears to be just days away.