Two mid-major programs took to YouTube last Wednesday to not only announce a three-game series between the schools but also to chronicle their mascots playing a best-of-three rock/paper/scissors battle to determine which team hosts the game this year. A spokesman for one of the schools reminded those viewing the broadcast that both mascots would be available for comment afterward, though “…I don’t think they can speak, so I don’t know how that’s going to work.” And later, a Hall of Fame coach chimed in during and after the rock/paper/scissors duel.
Was this reality or some kind of surreal dream fueled by the insomnia generated by the previous night’s presidential election?
For Hofstra and Iona, it was not only reality, but also some much-needed clarity ahead of what promises to be the cloudiest college basketball season ever played.
Coronavirus-permitting, Hofstra and Iona now know, thanks to Willie Pride’s 2-0 victory over Killian the Gael, that Hofstra will host the game between the schools on Dec. 23.
“Not a lot going on in the world last night, so we took six, seven hours and really broke things down,” said Hofstra acting head coach Mike Farrelly, who is filling in as Joe Mihalich takes a medical leave of absence. “I know Killian was talking trash. I know he got out there at 2:30 in the morning saying he thought he had it won and he had all the votes and he knew what the game plan was. We analyzed all that stuff.”
After Willie won the first round, Iona head coach Rick Pitino, who has won two national titles and reached the Final Four seven times, asked for a rock/paper/scissors refresher — “Why don’t you explain how the game works?” — before declaring Killian’s elimination in the second round should be his final act at the school.
“We should say goodbye to our mascot,” Pitino said. “He’ll never be around again.”
As much fun as the schools had with announcing the series, the resumption of a dormant local rivalry — the schools are located about 30 miles apart — serves as an acknowledgment of how tough it is in normal times for mid-majors to fill up a non-conference schedule.
Hofstra and Iona have played each other 40 times, but this year’s game will be their first since Dec. 29, 2011, when Hofstra earned an 83-75 win on Long Island.
“Certainly, we look forward to (we) hope maybe a long relationship with Hofstra,” Pitino said. “When you play a local team, you love to get them on your schedule because you don’t have to spend a lot of money to travel and play them.”
The schools have established themselves as the premier programs in their leagues since that 2011 meeting. Under Tim Cluess, who retired due to health issues after sitting out last season, the Gaels made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013, won the MAAC’s regular season crown and the accompanying NIT bid in 2014 and 2015 before earning the league’s automatic NCAA bid every year from 2016 through 2019.
Hofstra, which won 17 games in the two seasons before Mihalich arrived in the spring of 2013, won three regular season CAA titles before finally winning its first CAA Tournament title and earning its first bid to the NCAA Tournament in 19 years last spring.
As difficult as it is for good mid-majors to find high-majors willing to play them, it can be equally challenging for good mid-majors located in the same region to find the common ground necessary to play one another. Farrelly said the negotiations between Hofstra and Iona dated back to the summer until both sides “…just said this is a game that makes too much sense.”
The resumption of the series also brings together the two programs whose most recent bit of news-making was overshadowed because they bookended the pandemic shutting down sports.
Hofstra’s win over Northeastern in the CAA title game on Tuesday, Mar. 10 made the Pride one of the final six teams to clinch an NCAA Tournament automatic bid. The team returned to campus late Wednesday afternoon, hours before Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the coronavirus set off the domino effect that led to the NCAA Tournament being canceled the following afternoon.
“Sitting on my couch that night, still basking in the glory from the night before, and when you hear that Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA got shut down — I just said to myself ‘Well, maybe they’ll try and squeeze it in, but it’s not looking good,’” Farrelly said.
Pitino was coaching in Greece, where he’d led Panathinaikos to the Greek Cup title in 2019, when he began connecting with Iona. The school’s president and athletic director flew to Madrid to meet with Pitino, who was able to agree on a deal and fly back to the United States just before the travel ban was instituted.
“I met someone a little later on the plane back (to Greece who) had to spend six months there and he couldn’t get out,” Pitino said “I got out 24 hours ahead of him, catching a flight through London. If I didn’t catch it I would have been stuck there and probably would not have been the Iona coach.”
It’ll be a lot easier for Pitino to get to the game against Hofstra, even if it might have been a bit easier with a better rock/paper/scissors approach from Killian. And being able to look ahead to a college basketball game in unusual fashion provided a little bit of levity during a year in desperate need of it.
“Does (home court) really make a difference?” Farrelly said with a chuckle. “So to be able to decide something that way, it’s unique (and) probably something we’ll never see again. Really fun and a good release.”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.