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Just last month, Northeastern rising senior Antonio Rizzuto was in the midst of collecting NCAA Division I college basketball offers on a near daily basis.

His total quickly rose from a handful to double digits, with St. Joe's giving him his 11th offer just last week. 

When he spoke on the phone in July about the wave of interest coming his way from a strong spring and summer on the AAU circuit with the York Ballers, he wasn't quite sure when he'd make a college decision. All along, however, there was one school that held a slight upper hand over the others, and for more than one reason.

On Saturday evening, Aug. 5, Rizzuto ended all speculation on where he would play college basketball beginning in the fall of 2018, giving a verbal commitment to the University at Albany, announcing it on his Twitter page.

"You want to be part of a winning team," Rizzuto said. "They've been winning a lot of games the past few years. ...It's a winning team. I got family there, that helps a little bit, but it's the best situation out of all the schools I have offers from."

Family connection: The Great Danes have always been there with Rizzuto, being the first team to offer him a scholarship last summer.

There's good reason for their head start on the 6-foot, 3-inch guard. On the staff at Albany is Jon Iati, a York Catholic graduate, but, more significantly, Rizzuto's cousin. 

Iati was promoted from assistant coach to associate head coach back in June and it was Iati who put Rizzuto on the radar of current men's head coach Will Brown last summer. 

Iati and Rizzuto always had discussions about Rizzuto's goals to play Division I basketball, but it wasn't until after his sophomore season that Iati finally had to start taking them seriously. When Iati mentioned Rizzuto to Brown and Brown had a chance to see Rizzuto play, Rizzuto didn't disappoint, proving himself a worthy Division I prospect. He also proved his cousin right about his abilities.

Brown offered Rizzuto and things began snowballing from there for Rizzuto, up until he made his decision Saturday evening.

"Obviously, (Jon) isn't going to offer me and risk losing his job just to give me an offer," Rizzuto said. "But, then I got all these other offers to validate it. You gotta see what the options are. ...It's a good feeling having Jonathan there, but he's going to be my coach on the floor. He's not going to be my cousin. He'll be my cousin at 12 o'clock at night, but during practices, he's not."

Relatively new program: There's a lot for Rizzuto to like about the Great Danes' program.

The 2017-18 season will be the 19th in program history at the Division I level. In that short time, Albany has made five NCAA Tournaments thanks to winning five America East Conference titles. It won back-to-back crowns in 2005-06 and 2006-07 and then three in a row from 2012-13 through 2014-15, all with Brown as head coach. Iati has been a part of the last three trips.

"I've always been on winning teams, going 30-3 with Northeastern last year, and I believe it was like 40-10 for my AAU season this year," Rizzuto said. "So, we're always winning and that was the biggest part. ...There's a lot of schools that say they want to make it happen and there's others that have already made it happen, that want to make it happen again, so you can trust those guys a little bit more."

Big senior season: Rizzuto was instrumental in 2016-17 in helping the Bobcats have the best season in program history.

Northeastern rolled to titles in York-Adams Division I, the York-Adams League Tournament and District 3 5-A Tournament, while making the PIAA Class 5-A semifinals.

His 19.0 points per game ranked him fifth in the league in scoring and earned him a second-team 5-A All-State selection by the Pennsylvania Sports Writers.

The strong junior campaign have only heightened expectations for Rizzuto and his team, which will be a heavy favorite to repeat as Division I and league champion, and among the favorites in districts. So, it was important for Rizzuto to make his college decision now so he can focus on what he does best — play ball.

"It just got to a point where I felt comfortable," he said. "I knew it was the place for me and I was kind of feeling it for a while, but not really telling anybody. When St. Joe's offered me, that was huge. But, we put everything out on a spreadsheet and did the pros and cons. I did visit St. Joe's — great school, great coach, high-major program and everything — but in the end, Albany is the best place for me."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com

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