Ryan Myers almost had to pinch himself.
On the other end of the phone was Rick Pitino selling himself to the Christ the King senior guard, going over all his accomplishments, his history of development and explaining why Myers would fit into his plans at Iona College.
“I’m just telling myself, ‘This is crazy,’ ” Myers, a three-star recruit from Brooklyn, recalled.
Tahlik Chavez, a sharpshooting junior college guard from Texas, had a similar reaction speaking to the man who has led three schools — Providence, Kentucky and Louisville — to the Final Four and has won two national championships. Louisville’s title has since be vacated after an NCAA investigation.
“It’s hard to turn down Rick Pitino,” Chavez said. “It was like a dream talking to Coach Pitino.”
Both wound up committing to the 67-year-old Pitino and Iona, along with four others in the span of five days from March 21-25. On Thursday, Iona announced a massive eight-man class that includes two previous junior college pledges, Darreus Brown and Robert Brown, under former coach Tim Cluess.
It remains to be seen how these players develop, but talent evaluators believe Iona did well with this group. Junior college transfers Osborn Shema and Berrick Jeanlouis are rated in the top 30 by JUCORecruting.com. The 7-foot-1 Shema, who averaged 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds this past season for New Mexico Military Institute, visited Rutgers in January and Florida State had interest. Myers was being recruited by Fordham. Chavez picked Iona over Tulsa. Forward Nellie Jean Joseph, a big man out of the NBA Academy Africa, may have wound up at a higher level if he remained uncommitted, Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Corey Evans said.
The group has size — four players 6-foot-8 or bigger — versatility, athleticism and skill needed in Pitino’s up-tempo system. It was particularly impressive work considering Pitino and his staff met these players through Zoom and relied on video highlights and landed them all in just a few weeks of recruitment time.
“People are just realizing he hasn’t lost his touch. It reflects the relationships that Rick Pitino has, to jump in that kind of a job with that kind of class,” said Evans, who rated Myers, Jeanlouis and Joseph as “mid-major-plus guys” all capable of playing at a higher level than the MAAC.
“You have to have a great freshmen base — that’s what we’re going to focus on,” Pitino said in a phone interview. “We did that a little bit this year. We’re going to do a lot of that next season. Then you have to build the non-conference schedule.”
Pitino is in the process of doing that. Iona is in talks to face a number of power-five conference foes, from Oklahoma State to Kentucky to Minnesota, which is coached by his son, Richard Pitino.
It will be interesting to see how high Pitino can recruit. He’s already landed wings Ikechi Chantilou and Kenard Richardson out of Life Christian Academy (Va.) for the 2021 class, while offering a few top-100 prospects in future classes. One of them, junior forward Gabe Wiznitzer, recently told PhenomHoopReport.com he was interested in Iona and wanted to visit soon.
Pitino has “no doubt” he can bring in elite prospects — he wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise — but he also said he doesn’t rely on how many stars are next to a player’s name when he evaluates them. He rates them on how they fit into his system.
“He has a lot of haters, but he has a lot of people who love him, too,” said Steve Lowry, an adviser for Shema and fellow signee Johan Crafoord, a high school recruit. “I know he has [as much coaching ability] in his pinky finger than some guys have in their whole brain.” He can get five-star recruits. … I think he can get high-level-caliber players. It’s not going to be hard for him at all.”