Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Izaiah Pasha had one decision to make, critical to his making an even more important decision.
The Cardinal O’Hara senior had seen his recruitment reach a new level over the summer, with offers from schools in the Big East and the Atlantic 10 on top of those from the Colonial (CAA) and Metro Atlantic (MAAC), other mid-to-high majors interested beyond that. But some of those offers had a catch: Pasha would have to do a prep year and begin college in 2024, while others were willing to take him in 2023 —and some of those programs wanted him to redshirt, to put muscle onto his 6-foot-5, 181-pound frame and adjust to the college system before debuting in 2024-25.
Cardinal O'Hara's Izaiah Pasha announced his commitment to Iona on Friday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Pasha wanted to play for the right program — but he also wanted to play right away. That left him with not one, but two questions to answer as he went on his collegiate visits, waiting and hoping for the right opportunity to present itself.
And then along came Rick Pitino and Iona.
The Gaels’ Hall-of-Fame coach extended an offer in July; Pasha took an official visit last weekend, and knew he’d found the spot he’d been doing all that waiting and hoping for. He called Pitino on a Friday in late October and committed.
“Before I got to Iona, I was praying, like ‘mom, I hope something at Iona makes me want to commit there,’” he said, “and luckily that happened.
“It was the coach — Rick Pitino’s a Hall-of-Famer, he’s a great coach,” Pasha added. “What he’s capable of doing for a player like me and his connections and his development is something that I need to get me to the next level. They’re also a winning program, they play at a very high and fast pace.”
Pasha didn’t know much about Pitino when the Iona staff first got in contact — after all, he was not yet a teenager when Pitino’s 16-year tenure at Louisville ended in a national scandal in 2017, was just a kid when Pitino was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame (2013), wasn’t yet born when Pitino led Louisville to the 1996 National Championship, one of three teams he’s led to the Final Four.
Nemetz said both he and Pasha were impressed during a visit to the school’s New Rochelle campus, outside New York City in Westchester County, when Pitino showed that he’s still got plenty of energy left at 70 years old.
“Coach Pitino runs his player development personally and is very involved in practices and everything,” Nemetz said. “Hearing his pedigree is one thing but then going to see how invested he is in the guys still [...] I think Izaiah heard what he did, then saw it when he went on the official [visit] and it clicked for him.”
“I got to see for myself, what everyone’s saying he is and what he’s capable of doing is true,” Pasha agreed.
Even before Pitino arrived before the 2020-21 season, Iona was one of the strongest programs in the MAAC, which consists of 11 mid-major programs spread from Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg (Md.) to Quinnipiac in Hamden (Conn.) and Canisius in Buffalo (N.Y.), though none in Pennsylvania. The Gaels have made the NCAA Tournament seven times since going in 2011-12, Tim Cluess guiding the program to a 199-108 (.648) mark in nine seasons before stepping aside due to health issues.
Cardinal O'Hara and Philly Pride guard Izaiah Pasha was one of the area's top uncommitted 2023 players. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
All that success is part of the reason Iona appealed so much to Pitino and thus to Pasha, who also had offers from the likes of Delaware, Xavier, VCU, St. Joe’s, La Salle, George Washington, Towson, Siena and more.
Pasha’s game has taken a noticeable leap forward since he arrived in Philadelphia last summer from Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, not that he wasn’t talented to begin with. Entering his junior year, Pasha was a versatile wing — and averaged 17.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 3.7 apg as proof of that — but has improved in his body fluidity and ball-handling.
“It opened a lot about my game that I didn’t really know,” he said of playing in the PCL, widely recognized as the most competitive and talent-filled in the state. “It brought out the dog in me, just competing every night, playing hard [...] there’s no taking breaks.”
“I think his competitiveness came out, too, just being with us over the last year and a half ish, just those things from an intangible side,” Nemetz said. “Skill-wise, he proved he can score in a variety of ways, he shot over 40% from three, he’s got a really good mid-range game and getting to the rim, continuing to add to those three pieces as a scorer, I think those are the areas he’s improved the best.”
Pasha will be one of the front-runners for Catholic League MVP head into the season, where the Lions are going to be in the mix in a brutally deep PCL. Last year, O’Hara finished with a 12-11 record (6-7 PCL), losing to Roman Catholic in the PCL quarterfinals, but still qualified for the PIAA Class 4A state tournament, where they lost to Dallas in the second round.
O’Hara’s only won one Catholic League title in its boys history, back in 1968. A second would be the perfect prize before departing for college life.
“Winning the PCL chip, that’s all I’m worried about,” Pasha said. “Personal goals: PCL MVP and just getting my name out there more, going from a three-star to a four-star or maybe a five-star. Those personal goals will come if as a team we do good. I want to win a PCL chip and I want to win a state ‘chip.”