"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Saturday, October 21, 2023

St. John's Preview, 2023-24

St. John's Red Storm

January 20, 2024 at Madison Square Garden and February 10, 2024 at Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Rick Pitino (711-290 overall, 0-0 at St. John's)

Three-Year NET Average: 77.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 68.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 54

Projected Starters: PG Daniss Jenkins (6'3" Sr), SG Jordan Dingle (6'3" Sr), SF Glenn Taylor, Jr (6'6" Jr), PF Chris Ledlum (6'6" 5th), C Joel Soriano (6'11" 5th)

Rick Pitino, back where he belongs in both the Big East and New York City

Photo by Porter Binks | Getty Images

In four years running St. John's, Mike Anderson's teams played fast, loose, and ineffectively. While Anderson kept up his streak of never having a losing season in 21 seasons as a head coach, that was bolstered by a staggering 27-0 record in sub-100 buy games.(he went 41-56 in all other games, 20-46 in the Big East). Anderson was fired and almost every player on the roster left as well; the only returning player to score double-digit points on the season is Joel Soriano, who averaged a double-double last year. Replacing Mike Anderson is coaching legend Rick Pitino, who brings an overhauled roster and wave of optimism to Queens.

Daniss Jenkins comes with Pitino from Iona to run the point. He's a versatile scorer that also excels at creating for his teammates. He'll be joined in the back court by the leading returning scorer in the country, Jordan Dingle, who averaged an efficient 23.4 ppg for Penn last year, earning him Ivy League Player of the Year honors and the highest scoring average in the league in the past 35 years. Glenn Taylor joins from Oregon State and is one of the few proven high-major starters on the Johnnies' roster. Taylor is a rangy athlete with good quickness and the ability to defend multiple positions. He will likely be the player assigned to the opponent's best offensive option most nights. Chris Ledlum transfers in from Harvard, where he was also an all-Ivy honoree. He originally transferred to Tennessee, but re-opened his transfer recruitment and landed in Queens after averaging 18.8 ppg/8.5 rpg last year for the Crimson. The lone returning starter and team captain is Joel Soriano. The physically imposing big man posted 15.2/11.9 last year, but was somewhat an empty calories contributor as St. John's was 3.8 points/100 possessions better on offense and 4.4/100 better on defense when Soriano was off the floor. Pitino also has depth to work with, as Nahiem Alleyne was a key role-player for UConn's championship team, R.J. Luis was a double-digit scorer for UMass as a freshman, Zuby Ejiofor is a physical big coming from Bill Self's Kansas program, and Simeon Wilcher is a top-35 freshman recruit that will add athleticism to St. John's.

Offensively, Pitino likes to run a dribble-drive motion offense that he has morphed with his experiences. At Iona, he tried to incorporate more European sets (modeled on his time in Greece) so expect his team to drive and kick, constantly be in motion, continuously looking for the best look and having a quick release once it's there. Inside, his bigs will crash the glass hard for second-chance points, something both Ledlum and Soriano excel at. On defense, he will likely continue to turn up the pressure, though with less press than he ran in the past. Even still, his teams have always been aggressive, attacking the ball to create turnovers, altering shots in the paint, and simply contesting everything. Typically, 3PFG% is considered to be largely a measure of luck, but Pitino's teams have ranked top-50 in 3PFG% defense in 13 of his past 18 seasons and more important in 6 of his last 7. His teams are going to be well schooled at contesting at the arc effectively, obscuring shooting views and forcing offensive players into rushed shots. The places to exploit the defense are by attacking it. They don't close out rebounds well and their aggression can get them into foul trouble. Teams that attack and take advantage of the aggressive tendencies Pitino's teams have will be best suited to defeat them.

On paper, this team looks like a transfer all-star team that could compete in the Big East. Soriano can rack up numbers, Taylor, Alleyne, and Ejiofor have high major experience, and Dingle, Jenkins, Luis, and Ledlum all were stars at their last stops. But the most important factor is Pitino. In 3 years at Iona, he went to 2 NCAA Tournaments and won the league twice. He has one of the best coaching minds in the game and his player development and system are both proven to win. This is a team that will likely battle for an at-large bid in year one under Pitino. There is probably too much raw talent and experience among the Big East elite for St. John's to be a title contender, but they have the look of a solid top-half team that will make things difficult for everyone they face.

One Man's Opinion: Cue the song "I'm a Believer" because I'm picking St. John's to finish #3 in the Big East. I was skeptical early in the summer as it seemed everyone was leaving and no one was coming in, but the players Pitino added were mid-major monsters. Looking at hoop-explorer's adjusted points/100 added, Jenkins (+27.9), Dingle (+18.6) and Ledlum (+18.9) were absolutely integral to their respective teams. These guys should translate to the high-major level. And if anyone can get Soriano to go from a negative value add to positive, it's Pitino. Further, he hasn't finished outside the top-4 in conference standings since 2011 (when he was still a 4-seed), accomplishing that in the Big East, American, ACC, and MAAC. Pitino also has the depth needed to run through a Big East season. This team will start surprising people early and not only should they be an NCAA team, I expect them to be favored to win a game or two when March rolls around.

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