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Men's basketball: Rick Pitino 'exceeded expectations' with first Iona recruiting class

Josh Thomson
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
New Iona College men's basketball coach Rick Pitino brought in eight new players. The college announced the new class on April 16, 2020.

Although Rick Pitino has never met his eight new recruits, the coach and his new players do share something in common: None of them have stepped foot on campus at Iona College.

But just a month after his hiring, Pitino, still sheltering-in-place in Fort Lauderdale, announced his first Iona recruiting class Thursday. That unfamiliarity with the new players hasn't stopped the coach from envisioning a much-needed influx of talent.

"Based on athleticism, by talent and by potential, we think we exceeded our expectations," Pitino said.

All recruiting was done through studying video and meeting players over Zoom. Three of the recruits are ranked among the top 100 junior-college prospects in the nation; two of them are top-30 players, Pitino said.

"We feel very comfortable with them," Pitino said. "Any time you beat out schools like Rutgers, Tulsa and Florida State for players, you have to be."

The eight new players include six Pitino recruits and two who signed to play for Tim Cluess. All eight will be eligible to compete during the 2020-21 season and Pitino said the team will lean heavily on newcomers on the heels of a 12-17 season.

"I've never had to bring in seven or eight players before," Pitino said. "That being said, because of Tim getting sick, it was an obvious need. We only had four or five players returning. Which of them can play, I don't know. I haven't seen any of them play."

The Gaels finished just 9-11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and lost all-league players E.J. Crawford and Tajuan Agee to graduation. Cluess, who didn't coach all season due to undisclosed health reasons, resigned on March 13. Pitino was hired the next day and earned his first commitments just over a week later.

RICK PITINO: Iona turns to Hall-of-Fame coach to replace Tim Cluess

Forwards Johan Crafoord, Osborn Shema and Nelly Junior Joseph headline the newcomers in the frontcourt.

Crafoord, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound senior at Glove Prep (Fla.) Christian Academy, is a rugged, versatile forward who played some summer ball locally with the New York Rens. Shema, who also attended Glove Prep, just completed his freshman season at New Mexico Military Institute and is a skilled and agile 7-footer.

They will be joined by Junior Joseph, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound Nigerian who Pitino said proved he was of Africa's top players at the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal.

Pitino also added three new names in the backcourt: Christ the King combo guard Ryan Myers, junior-college sharpshooter Tahlik Chavez and 6-foot-4 high-flyer Berrick JeanLouis, who played for junior-college power Florida Southwestern State.

"It's an outstanding class," Pitino said. "A couple of these guys I would've recruited at Louisville."

RECRUITING: Pitino lands first commitments at Iona in Chavez, Myers

Although the new recruits have varying skillsets, Pitino believes the class can inject some athleticism. That should allow him to play the type of pressure defense he played at Louisville and elsewhere.

Iona played a significant amount of zone defense under Cluess, but was known primarily for an uptempo offense that relied on ball movement and 3-point shooting.

"It's a different style, but there are many ways to win basketball games," Pitino said.

Iona College point guard Isaiah Washington is one of six players under scholarship in addition to Rick Pitino's new eight-man recruiting class.

The Gaels have also added Darreus Brown, a 6-foot-3 guard from Clarendon College, and Robert Brown, a 6-foot-9 forward from New Mexico State, who previously committed under Cluess. Six other scholarship players are currently in the program as well, but Pitino didn't say who is expected to depart. The NCAA's only permits Division I basketball programs to have 13 players on scholarship.

Three of the possible returnees, guards Isaiah Washington, Asante Gist and Isaiah Ross, all played big minutes as juniors. Washington was a highly-touted transfer last year from Minnesota after playing two uneven seasons under Richard Pitino, Pitino's son.

"The team last year was a sub .500 team, so there was not a lot of talent coming back," Pitino said. "We have to rely mostly on what's coming in. If there are a few guys who can play for us, great."

Pitino said a primary task in the coming months will be creating a new infrastructure for the program. He hopes he can lead an effort that results in the college building a new strength and conditioning facility and a fueling station to provides athletes with better training and proper nutrition.

"We have to add a lot of things," he said. "I have to be a fundraiser as much as a basketball coach."

Josh Thomson is the Local Sports Editor for The Journal News and Poughkeepsie Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at jthomson@lohud.com, on Twitter at @lohudinsider, and on Instagram at @lohudinsider.

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