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UConn rolls to second round as NCAA men's tournament returns to Albany; Pitino's future unclear

The NCAA men's basketball tournament returned to Albany Friday for the first time since 2003.

MVP Arena was jammed with fans from near and far, with St. Mary's, Virginia Commonwealth, Iona, Indiana, Kent St., Miami, Drake and UConn hoping for some March magic this weekend. Also taking in the games was actor Bill Murray, whose son is a UConn assistant.

The renovated arena's first men's tourney since Syracuse's title run in 2003 had all the hallmark: The bands. The chants. And the electrifying moments.

After 12-seed VCU fell to 5-seed St. Mary's in the opener, the highlight of the day featured Iona and UConn in the 13-4 matchup. Each team brought familiarity to the building. Iona, led by coaching titan Rick Pitino, visits the building every winter to face host Siena in conference play, while UConn star Andre Jackson Jr. is from nearby Amsterdam and starred at Albany Academy.

Just before tipoff, 2006 Iona captain and former Guilderland High standout Ken Dagostino was hoping for the upset.

“Actually my team, we went to the NCAA Tournament, played against LSU, so hopefully we can get this one,” he said. “It’s a good matchup for us so we’ll see, maybe we can pull off the upset.”

What’s the secret for the little guy in March?

“I think just play your game, get some breaks to go your way, and hopefully things turn out for you in the end,” he said.

Also taking in the action was former 20-year University at Albany coach Will Brown, whose first visit of five visits to the NCAA tournament came against UConn in 2006, when the Great Danes gave the Huskies a scare in the 16-1 game.

“Who wouldn’t want to be coaching in the NCAA tournament right now? A lot of stress, I don’t mind watching. And I studied coaches so it doesn’t get more animated than Danny Hurley or more intense than Rick Pitino, so it makes me feel better to think maybe I wasn’t that crazy on the sidelines for all those years.”

As for Brown’s next job, “I don’t, I hope to know that in the next month or so, but my intention is to be back in the college game.”

Back to the action: Iona led UConn at halftime but the athletic Huskies pulled away late, earning a date with St. Mary's on Sunday with an 87-63 win.

Jackson finished with 10 points while playing before hundreds of friends and family.

“It felt good to see my family up in the stands,” he said. “I tried to stay locked into the moment and really locked into what was happening on the court. I didn’t really realize I was in Albany until after the game.”

The loss for Iona could mean the end of Pitino's stint in New Rochelle. The former Kentucky, Louisville and NBA coach who rebuilt his career after a messy exit from the Cardinals is widely rumored to be in the running for another major conference gig.

After the game, the Hall of Famer wouldn’t say if he plans to leave or even when he’ll decide.

“I really don’t have an answer to it to be honest with you, I have no idea if it is or isn’t because I’ve focused everything on this game. Trying to develop a plan to beat Connecticut,” he said.

Pitino took the chance to look back on his journey back to the college game. He was cleared of NCAA recruiting violations while at Louisville at the start of Iona’s season, but his 2013 national title there was vacated in a different scandal. Now, he’s rumored to be in line for the St. John’s job or another.

“The future, I really have no idea what the future may bring, because I gotta 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,” he said.

The tournament continues in this West Region on Sunday, with two tickets to the Sweet 16 on the line.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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