Rick Pitino has St. John’s basketball primed for big stage amid Big East renaissance


NEW YORK — This is the 10th year of the reformed Big East, and on Tuesday, the league held its annual preseason media day for its 22 men’s and women’s basketball programs. 

As commissioner Val Ackerman made her introductory speech, she noted how this year brought more people to Madison Square Garden for Big East media day than any in the nine years prior. 

The reasons are plenty, but one stands out above the others: Rick Pitino is now the coach at St. John’s. He has the juice. UConn is the reigning champion in men’s college basketball, Marquette is the pick to repeat as champion of the Big East, Villanova seems well-positioned to return to relevance after a down season and Creighton should again be good after an Elite Eight run. 

But the most pressing point of intrigue in this conference over the next couple of months is what St. John’s will look like under Pitino in Year 1. 

St. John’s decision to bring Pitino back to big-stage college basketball could prove to be the thing that makes an adrift program matter again. If Pitino wins big, it could position the Big East as the most compelling conference. That’s what hiring a Hall of Famer (with some polarizing qualities for some, no doubt) will do for a team, for a league, for a region of the country that knows and loves its basketball.

“I think everything in life comes full circle,” Pitino told CBS Sports. “And this certainly has for me. This is the third time I’ve coached in the Big East, with three different universities. And this is really special because I didn’t have to move, which is great. It’s a little longer trip for me now, but being at St. John’s — growing up a St. John’s basketball fan, coaching against St. John’s — is quite special.”

The Red Storm were picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll. I have them 42nd overall in my list of the top 101 teams heading into the 2023-24 season. That’s plenty of belief in a program that has one 20-win season and one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past eight years. That’s the influence of Pitino. 

“I think this conference is as strong this year as any other time in the history of the Big East, which is saying something,” Pitino said.

What’s more, this roster is almost entirely a rebuild. The only significant returning piece is Joel Soriano, a proficient center who averaged 15.2 points and 11.9 rebounds and was an obvious match for Pitino — and vice-versa. 

“Joel just had a reputation of being a really good person,” Pitino said. “I wanted to put together a collection of 13, 14 guys that were great people. Because, to try and win in your first year with new people, if you don’t have a great attitude, a great work ethic, then you’re probably not going to succeed. … So I had to start it all with him.”

Pitino is doggedly determined to make St. John’s the last great chapter in his complicated but undeniably legendary run as a coach. If he can get SJU to the NCAA Tournament, that will mark the sixth program he’s taken there, which would be an NCAA record. The Johnnies haven’t won a tournament game since 2000 — one of the longest high-major droughts in history. They’ve been searching for a savior for more than two decades. Pitino’s three-year show of prominence at Iona allowed for a Big East comeback story — and they love these kinds of high-stakes sports tales in New York City. 

The fan base is dying for not just winning, but winning in a way that matters both in New York and nationally. Pitino and his staff ripped out the guts of the program, flipping all but two players. St. John’s brought in a lot of guys with good stats … but who played on mediocre teams. If this Jonnies squad is going to finish in the top half of the Big East, then transfers like Jordan Dingle from Penn and RJ Luis form UMass and Chris Ledlum from Harvard and Daniss Jenkins from Iona will need to transform into power-conference performers. 

They need the Pitino Effect.

I’m looking forward to this year as much as I have in any time in my coaching history because it’s back home,” he said. “I still remember my New York Knicks press conference. … The Garden has changed immensely, about $2 billion added into it, but still the same freight elevator to get to the locker room. There have been a lot of changes, but it’s the great history and I’m so excited to be back a part of it.”

As a measure of caution, Pitino told me it’s not going to look the way he wants it to look in the first phase of the season.

“I think we have a lot to accomplish,” he said. “Right now we’re not a good enough defensive team to even think that way. I think we’re good enough offensively. We have enough talent to do it. But defensively, to play with the likes of Creighton, Marquette, Connecticut, Xavier, Providence, to play with those teams it’s going to take a much better defense, something we don’t have right now. But I sort of figured we shouldn’t have it right now. We’re building toward the first game.”

Part of St. John’s becoming a contender will include the program recruiting four- and five-star freshmen in the years to come, which has been a huge challenge in the past 20 years for a school based in Queens. However, the first of potentially many big names is freshman lead guard Simeon Wilcher, who decommitted from North Carolina to play for Pitino and is the highest-ranked Red Storm recruit in more than 10 years. 

After bringing aboard almost an entire team in the span of less than two months, Pitino said the experience was unlike anything he’d been through as a coach at any level. One major reason was all of the NIL conversations that happened around him. 

“And you don’t know how that’s gonna play out,” he said. “Because now you get the young man to come in, now he has to go talk with somebody about the name, image and likeness (deal). And you have no idea how that’s going to turn out. So that was different than any time in my lifetime. Because you’re, it’s almost like you’re a professional basketball coach. And now you’re talking to a free agent. And the free agent has to go speak to the vice president to see if the contract’s workable. And that was kind of interesting, to say the least.”

If anyone is capable of navigating through one obstacle after another after another, it’s Pitino. At 71, he’s eager to be back in the spotlight and will a group of young men into his image of a winning team. To hear him talk about it, you get the sense he needs it like he needs food. It’s an everyday requirement. 

If there’s already this much buzz around St. John’s and the Big East in October, wait until league play starts. A huge year awaits for arguably the proudest basketball league in America. 

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