The Hall of Fame coach has a challenge, bringing so many newcomers together
It has been eight weeks since Rick Pitino was hired as the new coach at St. John’s, bringing a new coaching staff and a new hope with him. (He retained one coach, Van Macon, who had been the lead local recruiter for previous coach, Mike Anderson.)
Coach Pitino’s first action to take was to meet with center Joel Soriano and name him captain for the upcoming season. Coach Pitino then met with the press and indicated that fans could anticipate a turnover in student athletes. Now eight weeks later, only two players from last year’s squad remain and 11 new athletes have been recruited.
The 2023-24 squad is a mix of experience and underclassmen. One freshman and five sophomores bringing energy and excitement to the program, while two heralded juniors, one returning senior thanks to an extra year of eligibility due to the shortened COVID season, and four graduate transfers round out the 2023-24 Red Storm team.
Three questions as we dig into the roster and the possibilities…
Coach Rick Pitino – how fast will the turnaround be?
Over the years, Coach Pitino has won 770 games to 271 losses. However, in his first season at the last four schools he coached his won/loss record was less stellar. At Providence in his first season (1985-86) his team went 17-14. At Kentucky in his first season the Wildcats had a 14-14 record. In 2001-02 at Louisville, the team was 19-13 and at Iona during the shortened, COVID, season of 2020-21 the Gaels went 12-6.
It did not take long for Coach Pitino to lead his teams to considerable improvements as the winning percentage at all four schools went from 62-47 in the first year to 97-30 in year two.
With the Johnnies having added more Iona players to the current roster than their two returnees and adding seven additional players, Coach Pitino and his staff have their work cut out for this coming season with new players.
How quickly will Coach Pitino mold this team into a winner? Does he have the right players in the fold?
Who are the Point guards?
When reviewing the credentials of the six backcourt players, they are all listed as Shooting Guards.
Of the six, Daniss Jenkins, who averaged 4.9 assists per game at Iona, seems the most likely to transfer to the point guard role. He has a record of assisting teammates; having played for Coach Pitino at Iona this past year, is familiar with his system. He is also experienced as he is entering his fourth year of collegiate basketball.
None of the other backcourt players showed meaningful assists numbers, though Jordan Dingle did have three six-assist games last season.
Another candidate might be Grad Student, Nahiem Alleyne, who played a supporting role on the UConn National Championship team and brings experience to the Johnnies.
Will defense be a Strength?
The two returning Red Storm players, Joel Soriano and Drissa Traore were strong defenders and rebounders over the past year. What about the newcomers?
Quinn Slazinski took down grabbed 18% of available rebounds on defense in 27 minutes of playing time.
Cruz Davis and Daniss Jenkins were solid at forcing steals.
Zuby Ejiofor brings athleticism and toughness on the interior to give Joel Soriano a rest or to join him on the court when added toughness is needed. Ejiofor also grabbed nearly 24% of defensive rebounds in his limited minutes, and was a significant defensive presence on the floor for the Jayhawks.
The rest contributed, but were not standouts in steals, grabbing defensive rebounds, or in the Defensive Box Score Plus/ Minus.
Still, Coach Pitino stressed defense in his recruitment efforts, and the team brings a solid amount of athleticism — and perhaps, the coachability Pitino needs for his system. Pitino has been an elite defensive coach at every college team he has coached, and that is likely to continue.
Way too early to predict… but here we go
The team is like a jigsaw puzzle with 13 pieces. Four of the pieces are connected (the Iona transfers) and an additional two are attached (the Red Storm returnees). All others have no connections.
Putting this many disconnected pieces together to make a team that plays an uptempo game, which Coach Pitino features, will be a challenge.
The talent on the team may be an upgrade over the past year; at the very least, the players will play their best and with something to prove. The players joining the team are expressing excitement to play for a coach like Rick Pitino, choosing St. John’s over other well-respected programs.
The challenge is significant and even as skilled a coach as Coach Pitino has found that winning during the first year in a program has its limits.
So what is likely? The non-conference schedule will be upgraded and the Big East continues to be one of the most challenging conferences to play in. Schedule projections indicate a minimal number of “cream puff” games at the beginning of the year with a more challenging early schedule to prep the team for the Big East season. A winning record is likely — but that depends on how quickly this steam of disengaged puzzle pieces connects with each other.