Pitino returns to big-time college hoops under MSG spotlight with challenge ahead at St. John's

NEW YORK — Dressed in a charcoal suit and burgundy tie, Rick Pitino spent the first half pointing and shouting directions, waving his arms and imploring one of his St. John’s players to “wake up!” after conceding an easy basket.

By late in the second half, the Hall of Fame coach was seated quietly at the front of the bench, his 71-year-old brain working overtime as he watched intently and pondered the next practice for his new team.

Pitino returned to big-time college basketball Monday night, stalking the Madison Square Garden sideline again in a humbling 89-73 loss to underdog Michigan. And while he certainly looked sharp on game day as usual, his overhauled squad featuring 12 newcomers did not.

“We’ve got to learn from it,” Pitino said. “We can’t beat the guys up over this.”

Pitino’s arrival has generated some Big Apple buzz for St. John’s, a storied program without much success to speak of this century. The school is 0-4 in NCAA Tournament games since its last victory in 2000, the same year the Red Storm won their most recent Big East Tournament title. They haven’t reached the conference semifinals since, even though the event is held annually on one of their home courts at The Garden.

Pitino, however, is a New York City native and proven winner everywhere he’s been — besides the Boston Celtics.

“He’s an ‘add water’ coach. What does that mean? He won’t need a lot of ingredients,” said Ed Cooley, the new coach at longtime rival Georgetown and, like Pitino, a former Providence coach.

“He’s one of five coaches in the country, in my opinion, that come with their own NIL — they come with their own ‘likeness.’ I would say Rick could be the greatest college coach of all time. He’s an ‘add water’ guy, for sure. He doesn’t need spices.”

Pitino made the rounds during the offseason, drumming up St. John’s support while throwing out the first pitch at a Subway Series game between the Mets and Yankees at Citi Field in June, and ringing the opening bell with his team at the New York Stock Exchange on Halloween.

St. John’s said sales for season tickets and Madison Square Garden-only packages are up 120% from last year. The season opener at 5,602-seat Carnesecca Arena on campus in Queens was sold out last Tuesday night for a 90-74 victory over Stony Brook. And the crowd of 14,188 at MSG on Monday night included decked-out rapper Fat Joe sitting in the front row — until he left with 10 minutes remaining in a blowout.

“The students were fabulous. We just couldn’t match The Garden,” Pitino said. “We couldn’t match the students and we couldn’t match the fans. And more importantly, we couldn’t match Michigan.”

Looking to garner more attention in Pitino’s first season, St. John’s has doubled its number of home games at MSG to eight. The team is also playing three at UBS Arena, the shiny Belmont Park home of the New York Islanders — including Big East games against DePaul and Seton Hall.

There’s talk of hosting Duke next season at Arthur Ashe tennis stadium, where the U.S. Open is played, and a home-and-home at Madison Square Garden with Alabama, Pitino said.

“This is a big year for us, because the brand is long gone at Louisville,” said Pitino, referencing the school he coached to the 2013 national title. “And the brand needs to be brought back.”

“I want to get back to playing great teams all the time,” he added. “We’re going to compete against anybody in the nation recruiting-wise. We don’t care who they are.”

On the court, the current roster features 10 transfers — three who followed Pitino to St. John’s from Iona. Senior center and captain Joel Soriano, selected Most Improved Player in the Big East last season after averaging 15.3 points and 11.9 rebounds, is the lone holdover who played significant minutes.

“Coach P — he wants everything to kind of be perfect. I kind of feel like a freshman sometimes, still learning,” a slimmed-down Soriano said. “He has an aura around him. … He’s a basketball freak. Just eats, sleeps basketball. His attention to detail is just amazing.

“I told him that I need somebody that’s going to be on my neck,” Soriano added. “Coach has been through it for 35 years. He knows what it takes to win. … I’m not going to not listen to a guy that has that type of resume.”

Newcomers include point guard Daniss Jenkins from Iona, guard Nahiem Alleyne from 2023 national champion UConn, all-Ivy League forward Chris Ledlum from Harvard and senior guard Jordan Dingle from Penn, the 2023 Ivy League player of the year and the nation’s leading returning scorer (23.4 ppg).

So on paper, there’s experience and depth. And there’s Pitino. That’s why St. John’s sat just a little outside the Top 25 in the first two AP polls this season.

“Well, I have a very large family that’s voting for us,” Pitino cracked at media day last month.

But as all the newcomers learn to play together, it’s obvious there’s plenty of work to be done following a 1-1 start.

Pitino, ahead of his time in the 1980s as a big early proponent of heavily utilizing the 3-pointer, is emphasizing both hitting 3s and defending against them — areas where recent St. John’s teams have struggled despite boasting some athletic players.

“There were three characteristics that we went after, and they were non-negotiable. If they couldn’t do all three, we were out. One is a very strong work ethic. Two is a great athlete. And three is a great shooter. If one was missing out of those three, we didn’t take ’em,” Pitino said in June.

Well aware it’s all a work in progress, the hard-driving Pitino said he and his players laugh together a lot more than his previous teams did.

But he was stunned at how often they went 1-on-1 against Michigan, because in practice they’ve been sharing the ball.

“I can tell you from coaching a long time, even when I had great teams, they don’t play their best basketball until January, February where they really excel,” Pitino said. “And we will. We’ll excel in January or February.”

March would work, too.

But that’s all down the road. This night marked the first home game at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” for Pitino since he coached the New York Knicks to a playoff victory over Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals on May 16, 1989.

Weeks later, after clashing with Knicks management, Pitino went back to college ball to rebuild a troubled Kentucky program that had just been placed on probation. The next three-plus decades in the national spotlight were a roller coaster of professional highs and lows — NCAA championships and embarrassing scandals, Final Four trips and 3 1/2 losing seasons with the Celtics.

A late-career coaching sojourn in Greece, then a midmajor rebirth at little Iona in the New York City suburbs.

And now, finally, a return to his basketball-junkie roots, just a jump shot away from where Pitino the point guard captained St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay on Long Island some 54 years ago.

“Come on, it’s Rick Pitino and St. John’s. Is there a more perfect match in the whole country?” said Michigan interim coach Phil Martelli, filling in while Juwan Howard recovers from heart surgery.

In the city that never sleeps, time will certainly tell.


AP National Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.


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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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