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Florida to face Iona in NIT with Al Pinkins as head coach

A strange situation will transpire in Gainesville this week.

Syndication: Westchester County Journal News Peter Carr/The Journal News / USA TODAY NETWORK

Days after parting ways with the coach who followed Billy Donovan in Gainesville, the Florida Gators will receive a visit from the legendary coach who shaped Donovan more than any other.

Sure, the game that occasions this is just a first round matchup in the 2022 NIT in which Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels will take on the Gators. But you can’t say the storyline isn’t interesting.

Florida was thought to have lost its last chance at making the 2022 NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball when it lost to Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday, but was certainly relatively close to that field of 68 — close enough, even, to argue that its No. 3 seed in this National Invitation Tournament’s Dayton Bracket is a slight snub of the Gators.

Then again, sixth-seeded Iona — in the NIT because of its automatic qualification for the field thanks to its regular season championship in the Metro Atlantic and also because of its shocking loss in the MAAC Tournament to Rider — beat Alabama this season, which Florida failed to do, and won 25 games in its regular season, which Florida only did once under head coach Mike White, whose Sunday departure for Georgia shifts assistant Al Pinkins into an interim head coach role for the duration of the NIT.

Iona is also the fifth different Division I school that Pitino has led to 20 or more wins and a postseason tournament — and Pitino will be the first coach to have won a men’s national championship as head coach to occupy take the sideline opposite Florida’s in the O’Dome other than annual visitor — and, for Pitino, long-time rival — John Calipari of Kentucky since a visit by Tom Izzo and Michigan State in December 2018.

And despite playing into the third round of the NIT in 2016, Iona’s visit will be Florida’s first home game in the NIT since 2009, as the 2015-16 Gators finished their season with road games in the event despite holding a No. 2 seed in one of its brackets thanks to renovations being done to their home floor. (Florida lost to Penn State in the third round of that tournament thanks to an off night from sophomore Nick Calathes, who would go pro after that game — and, 10 years later, play for Pitino at storied Greek team Panathinaikos.)

And if all of the above wasn’t enough to get the juices flowing for NIT basketball, Pinkins will become the first Black head coach of Florida’s men’s basketball in program history — albeit on an interim basis — in the matchup.

Can you feel the excitement!?

Florida’s game against Iona will tip off at 9 p.m. Eastern — if not a first for any game played in the O’Connell Center, certainly a rarity — on Wednesday, March 16, and will air on ESPN2 and be streamed through WatchESPN.