Is St. John's an NCAA Tournament team? Rick Pitino will soon get a look at his new group | Zagsblog
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Monday / September 25.
  • Is St. John’s an NCAA Tournament team? Rick Pitino will soon get a look at his new group

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    In the last game Rick Pitino coached, his team held a halftime lead on the eventual national champions in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

    That was at Iona — which lost to UConn in the Big Dance in Albany. Now he’s at St. John’s, and is curious to see if his new team has the makings of an NCAA Tournament team, too.

    “I won’t know that until they start practicing,” Pitino, 70, said Wednesday by phone, referring to the start of summer workouts at St. John’s on June 22. “I’m guessing right now. I like the team. I think we’re athletic, I think we’re deep, I think we got experience, but until I see them on the court, it’s a guessing game.”

    Pitino knows a thing or two about the NCAA Tournament. He has led five teams to the Dance, three to the Final Four and two (Kentucky and Louisville) to NCAA championships. At his most recent stop, he guided the Gaels to two NCAA Tournaments in three years.

    For what it’s worth, Jon Rothstein has St. John’s at No. 32 in his Rothstein 45.

    Much will depend on how Pitino puts the pieces together on his new team, which currently features 10 transfer additions, one Class of 2023 prospect in Brady Dunlap and two returners in Joel Soriano and Drissa Traore.

    Pitino plans to have the 6-foot-11 Soriano — who averaged 15.2 points and 11.6 rebounds a year ago — take some 3-pointers even though he’s never attempted one in his four-year career.

    “We play a lot of five out, so he’s going to have to to be effective,” Pitino said. “Even [Iona’s] Nelly [Junior Joseph] took an occasional three. Joel’s got very good form, very good, that’s just something he hasn’t worked on. It’s something he will work on.”

    Pitino also believes Jordan Dingle (Penn), Glenn Taylor (Oregon State) and RJ Luis (UMass) will bring shooting and scoring.

    The 6-3 Dingle, a Valley Stream, N.Y. native, averaged 23.4 points last season at Penn and then withdrew from the NBA Draft before committing to the Red Storm. The 6-6 Taylor Jr. averaged 11.6 last season, and the 6-7 Luis averaged 11.5 as a freshman.

    “RJ Luis and Taylor can really score,” Pitino said. “I went after shooting, I feel they can all score. Now whether they can play defense and do the other things, I don’t know. But I went after attitude, scoring and athletic ability, and they can do that.”

    St. John’s may not be done adding to its 2023-24 roster, either.

    After obtaining his release from North Carolina, 6-5 Roselle (N.J.) Catholic point guard Simeon Wilcher will visit St. John’s on Thursday. He averaged 15.4 points, 5.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds for a Lions team that won the New Jersey Non-Public B state title. He finished his high school career with a perfect 17-0 record in the state tournament.

    In 2021, he turned down a high-six-figure offer from Overtime Elite to remain in high school and enjoy traditional experiences like graduation and the prom. He graduated last Saturday along with teammates Akil Watson (Arizona State) and Mackenzie Mgbako, who was courted by Pitino after he obtained his release from Duke but ultimately landed at Indiana.

    β€œSimeon is a prototypical modern-day point guard,” Andy Borman, who coached Wilcher with the NY Rens and is now an assistant at Memphis, said when he initially chose North Carolina. β€œHe can do everything on both sides of the ball. He has an extremely unique feel for the game that allows him to balance running a team and also being aggressive offensively

    β€œHe is a terrific on-ball defender and rebounder from the point guard position.”

    St. John’s already has 13 players on scholarship, but Iona transfer Daniss Jenkins has not yet graduated Iona. As a two-time transfer, he would need a waiver to play immediately next season if he does not graduate.

    However the roster shakes out, St. John’s will be competing in a loaded Big East that will feature the reigning national champion Huskies, who just added sharp-shooting Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, a re-loaded Villanova team with several strong transfers and traditional powers Marquette, Creighton and Xavier. Georgetown, meantime, hired away Providence coach Ed Cooley and is rebuilding. The Big East could have four or five teams in the Top 25.

    “We had three teams in the [Sweet 16] and the national champion, this is the only conference in America where the main focus is basketball,” said Pitino, who previously coached Providence and Louisville in the Big East.

    “It’s the best conference, arguably, because they’ve proven it on the court. Now it’s gotten stronger because St. John’s and Georgetown are making strong comebacks.”

    SCHEDULE UPDATE

    St. John’s AD Mike Cragg said the plan is to play eight games at Madison Square Garden, three at UBS Arena and five at Carnesecca Arena.

    Pitino wants to sell out the Garden for the game with Michigan in the Gavitt Games on Nov. 13.

    “Our goal is to sell out the Michigan game with out students and alumni,” he said. “That’s our big wish. We want to hit it hard right away.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.