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St. John’s players decide to do it Pitino’s way

St. John’s players decide to do it Pitino’s way
St. John’s players decide to do it Pitino’s way

The games don’t start until the first week of November. What St. John’s does now is essential if it wants to win them.

In the days following Selection Sunday — when the Red Storm were stunned to learn that their red-hot finish had not been enough to advance them into the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68 — many of the players returning for the upcoming season realized some things would have to be different if St. John’s wants to be successful in 2024-2025. And as coach Rick Pitino said before coaching the Red Storm in a game, “You’ve got to make the NCAA tournament successful — that’s the gauge.”

Pitino completed the construction of St. John’s 2024-25 roster a week ago with the signing of forward Ruben Prey from Portugal. It capped a period in which he replenished the incoming recruiting class with several transfers, including Big East all-conference pick Kadary Richmond from Seton Hall and Pac-12 assist leader Deivon Smith from Utah.

That period was important. But the period they’re in now — with most of the team on campus and summer training underway — may be even bigger.

“Everyone was there (last season) with fresh faces, experiencing something new and not knowing how to play under coach Pitino and not knowing his coaching (style),” sophomore guard Simeon Wilcher told Newsday during a team appearance in Queens the night of the national title game. “The way I (practiced) when (the team) first started last summer was very different than how I practiced at the end. That’s how it was for almost all of us. There’s a way you play for Pitino and you have to adapt.

“We can accelerate that process with this group coming back,” he added. “The new players will have an (example) of how you’re expected to train, play, live under Coach Pitino.”

The last Red Storm team had just two returning players, neither of whom had played for Pitino. This team has four returning regulars in the rotation — Wilcher, sophomore forward Brady Dunlap, junior forward/center Zuby Ejiofor and junior swingman RJ Luis Jr. — who understand the commitment the Hall of Fame coach expects.

“I’ve heard stories and done a lot of research on Coach Pitino myself, but you don’t really know how obsessed he is with basketball and all the work he’ll put in to make you (good),” Dunlap said. “I don’t think a lot of us understood the hours and hours of film and the long practices and extra workouts that he (demands). We were all amazed at how hard it was and then we finally started to figure out how much (it takes).”

“It wasn’t until then that we really started to understand the press and his offense.”

St. John’s suffered some unforgivable out-of-conference losses early on, most notably to Michigan and Boston College.

“We’re going to be a better team a lot sooner because guys coming back now understand the importance of those games early in the season,” Dunlap said. “We didn’t realize how important Boston College and Michigan were, and they just killed us.”

He added: “Sim, Zuby and RJ now understand how important those early games are: not just winning them, but winning them by a big margin.”

The team started to improve with four wins, but then came a series of heartbreaking moments: a one-point loss at Creighton, a one-point loss to Marquette, a final setback at Xavier and a three-point loss at Providence.

In the last few weeks the Red Storm has been what was envisioned at the start. They reeled off five straight wins to end the regular season and finish fifth in the conference. They then avenged a pair of regular season losses to Seton Hall by defeating the Pirates in a Big East quarterfinal and reaching their first semifinal since 2000, competing for a five-point loss to eventual national champion UConn.

“Once we finally figured out Coach Pitino, we got really good,” Dunlap said. “Once we figured that out, we were able to run his offense and his pressure. There was an evolution — doing things his way and doing them together — and that’s why we got good.”

St. John’s just got there too slowly in 2023-2024.

“We finished the season very strong, but starting with those tough (non-conference) losses influenced the committee’s decision to leave us out,” Ejiofor said.

“Everything has to come together earlier next season and we’re building that culture to do that,” he added. “We have a core of guys coming back. We know Coach Pitino now and the way we have to play to win… We can showcase the newer guys.”

In the grand scheme of things, a lot came out of Selection Sunday when only three Big East teams were on the field. Selection committee members suggested that early-season success is just as important as late-season success. Big East coaches said they had relied too much on flawed statistics. Big East officials said smaller conferences had figured out how to manipulate the numbers and vowed to fix it.

When the Red Storm players found out that they were not only shut out, but not even in the final four, there was a huge disappointment. And that disappointment quickly turned into a decision about this season.

“It was heartbreaking to see the guys who were going to leave – it made a lasting impression … and made me feel like I could have done more,” Dunlap said. “I never want to have that feeling again.”

“It motivates me to make sure we get our name called next time, and not leave it up to the committee,” Wilcher said. “None of us want to go through that again — feeling so screwed — and that’s something we’re going to be talking about from Day 1 of summer training.”

Pitino’s largest restoration projects — Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville — had moderate success in their first year, but picked up steam in their second year.

“I’m very optimistic (because) when you look at all of Coach Pitino’s stats … the second year he gets it done,” Dunlap said. “We’ll be a year stronger, have another year of Pitino development and have a lot of players that know the Pitino way.”