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Men's basketball: Iona College shut down for COVID-19, postponing Rick Pitino's debut

Josh Thomson
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The much-anticipated start of the Rick Pitino era has been put on hold.

The Iona College men's basketball team will be shut down for two weeks due to a positive COVID-19 test in the program. The positive test came from a Tier 1 individual, defined by the NCAA as a student-athlete, coach, athletic trainer and physical therapist, medical staff, equipment staff or an official.

"Obviously, we're really disappointed," Pitino said. "We worked extremely hard to get to this point. It's not a player, It's not a coach. It's even more frustrating that way. All players and all of the coaching staff have come out negative. I know the players are disappointed, and that's the hardest thing."

Although the positive test was not from a student-athlete or coach, the NCAA mandates that all other individuals in Tier 1 must isolate for two weeks following a positive test.

The college said this is the program's first positive test since classes began on Aug. 10, although Pitino said two players were forced to quarantine late in the summer due to their girlfriends testing positive. The players and coaches have been tested three times per week since the season began.

Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino runs a practice with his team at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

Pitino did not disclose who tested positive, but said the person had followed all protocols during team activities that are recommended by the health department.

"The person was extra careful," Pitino said. "He wore a mask all the times. He wore gloves in practice. But he has roommates and that he lives with and that's probably how he caught it."

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The team's isolation has resulted in either a cancellation or postponement of the Gaels' first four games, beginning with their season-opening trip to Fordham on Nov. 25. The Iona-Fordham game falls in the mandatory two-week isolation window, and Pitino said the schools will try to reschedule the contest.

The isolation period will also affect Iona's three-game trip to Mohegan Sun, which had been slated to host the Gaels against three different opponents — Vermont, Buffalo and likely UMass — on Nov. 29, Dec. 1 and Dec. 2. Although the games fall outside the isolation period, Pitino said his team will not participate in the event.

Iona will not be allowed to hold team activities again until Nov. 27, the day it had been slated to travel to Connecticut for the event.

"We wouldn't have any time to get ready," he said. "Fourteen days without basketball, the players are all going to get out of shape and we need at least a week to get back into training. You don't want to subject them to injury. Any time this happens, it's going to be much more than the quarantine period."

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Iona's Berrick JeanLouis (0) during practice at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

The outcome could delay Pitino's debut until Dec. 5 when Iona hosts Wagner in its home opener. However, Pitino said Iona is working on scheduling a different game prior to then, whether that means rescheduling Fordham or finding another team in search of a game.

"I've never heard of a situation where you are in November and you're still trying to schedule games," he said.

Pitino noted that teams might be available to fill non-conference games after some leagues have decided to forgo all non-conference play. He cited a recent decision by Patriot League. Two of the league's teams, Boston University and Holy Cross, have scheduled six head-to-head meetings.

Pitino, who won national championships at Kentucky and Louisville, was hired in March to replace Tim Cluess, who resigned for health reasons after missing the entire 2019-20 season. He signed eight new recruits in April and is expected to add four more this week.

Pitino said his team's shutdown only underscored why he supported the Atlantic Coast Conference's push for an open NCAA Tournament.

"I don't think the NCAA realized how many shutdowns there will be," Pitino said. "That's why I think the ACC had a great idea. I think letting everyone in the NCAA Tournament would have been a real shot in the arm."

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.