Rick Pitino was about to return to the big leagues, but one question lingers: is St. John’s the best option?

ALBANY, NY – The Rick Pitino Sweepstakes have officially begun.

Pitino’s upset Iona Gaels made it entertaining, competitive and had the affair questionable for 20 minutes Friday against No. 4 UConn in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But as the teams emerged from the locker room after halftime, Connecticut reminded the country why it has been among the top teams in college basketball for most of the season: Huskies 87, Gaels 63.

UConn will play Saint Mary’s in the second round on Sunday. That can wait.

Friday’s story in New York’s capital was all about New York’s most coveted college basketball coach. Reading the tea leaves, the loss of Iona probably means Pitino has coached his last game with the Gaels after three seasons. The industry is currently abuzz with the future of Pitino, which has been going on for almost a month at this point.

However, he stopped short of going that far in his post-game press conference.

“I really don’t have an answer to it,” said Pitino when asked if this would be his last game with Iona, later adding, “I really haven’t thought about it at all.”

Meer Pitino: “I don’t know if it’s something for me, another job. I don’t know.”

Does anyone actually believe this?

Here’s what we know:

  • St. John’s has personally reached out to Pitino’s camp about coaching the Red Storm, such as CBS Sports previously reported this. School President Rev. Brian Shanley worked for weeks to bring Pitino to Queens. In recent days, Pitino has spoken openly to the media about the possibility, while also admitting that he doesn’t even know how to get to St. John’s campus or where it is. (Serious.)
  • Georgetown, a job that Pitino would also be a good fit for, is not involved. Sources told CBS Sports that the school has not reached out so far and is pursuing other candidates. Maybe Iona’s season changes that calculus is over, otherwise that would narrow the field for Pitino.
  • So who is at the top of Georgetown’s candidate list? The leader at this stage is Providence coach Ed Cooley, sources tell CBS Sports. Cooley is a resident of Providence and a holy son of that city. Could he find the guts to leave PC and stay in the Big East in Georgetown? People around Providence’s program thought it would never happen, but those beliefs have been wavering lately. Which is undeniably true as of Friday night: Cooley did nothing to cool down rumors that he is seriously considering opening the Hoyas.

If Cooley leaves Providence, would Pitino covet that job over St. John’s? It would certainly make sense if that were the case. Pitino took the Friars to a Final Four in 1987. He coached Billy Donovan, the same Billy Donovan Pitino referred to, unsolicited, on the Friday after Iona’s loss. But does Providence want Pitino? Maybe it should – there’s no more proven candidate in this year’s carousel, of course – but it’s unknown if Pitino would top the list if Cooley leaves.

This all sets the table for fascinating Big East drama as Cooley does indeed leave the place he’s so fondly referred to as his dream job.

All eyes are on Cooley and Pitino – and what a shakeup for the Big East this could all be. As UConn, Marquette, Creighton and Xavier head into the weekend, the conference offers juicy plot lines away from the cacophony of the NCAA tournament.

“I really have no idea what the future will bring, because I have to look at the big picture of things about winning, and winning is very important because we all work so hard, every coach works so hard,” said Pitino.

At this stage, a decision on Pitino’s future is expected sometime this week, sources told CBS Sports.

“I would expect this thing to move quickly,” a source said Friday.

My reading: I would think Pitino visits St. John’s no later than Monday to at least get a sense of the place and find out if it’s the place he wants to jump to.

“You don’t buy houses without looking at the garage and upstairs and kitchen and everything,” Pitino said of St. John’s. “You don’t just buy a house.”

At 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, the seventies quickly left the stage, descended the five steps of the metal staircase attached to it, made a sharp left turn after going through the black curtains, and hurried to Iona’s dressing room.

“I still train like a man possessed”, Iona coaches Rick Pitino told CBS Sports in February.

He proved that on Friday during his near-sprint back to the dressing room.

A horde of media followed in Pitino’s wake after he spoke, hoping to gain more clarity. There wouldn’t be. Not here. Pitino straightened his way and quickly disappeared behind a door with an Iona logo taped to the outside.

“Coach will not be answering any more questions tonight,” an NCAA representative said.

The answers are coming, and fast.

Seventy years old and as fit as a coach in over a decade. What was once impossible now seems inevitable: Rick Pitino’s grand return to the major leagues of college basketball seems just days away.

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