Rick Pitino’s return to big-time college basketball is complete.
The 70-year-old Hall of Fame coach is reportedly taking over at St. John’s, six seasons after his controversial ouster at Louisville due to the program’s involvement in the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Pitino’s deal is for six years, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Pete Thamel, though he said over the weekend he hopes to coach potentially for up to 12 years.
Pitino’s return to a big-time job has seemed like an inevitability since the NCAA’s IARP largely cleared him of wrongdoing in that scandal, and that return will now come at a program in desperate need of a shot in the arm after just two NCAA tournament appearances (and no wins) in the last decade. But how quickly can Pitino resurrect the St. John’s program? And how far can the legendary coach take the Red Storm?
One thing that was rarely in question the last two years under Mike Anderson in Queens was talent. There’s no guarantee Pitino will be able to (or even want to) retain the current St. John’s roster, but it’s worth noting no current Red Storm player has entered the transfer portal yet. This rebuild Pitino embarks on may be less about roster improvements and more about changing the program’s culture, which had soured late in the Anderson tenure.
A top priority: bringing back star big man Joel Soriano for his final season of eligibility. A transfer from Fordham, Soriano exploded in his second season in Queens, averaging more than 15 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game. That included a 19-point, 13-rebound performance in the team’s best win of the season, a road win at UConn.
Coincidentally, Pitino’s final game at Iona came against UConn just days ago in the men’s NCAA tournament. (The Huskies pulled away in the second half thanks to 22 points and 10 rebounds in the second from big man Adama Sanogo.) Pitino’s message after the game was speaking about his Iona team, but the thought also rings true to how he’ll have to build St. John’s against top Big East teams.
“They just physically dominated us on the glass and in the low post,” Pitino said. “It really taught me a lesson of what you need to compete at this level, and we didn’t have the frontcourt that could compete at this level.”
Soriano would give Pitino at least one big man capable of hanging in against the best of the Big East.
The other most intriguing roster piece for Pitino to potentially inherit is talented freshman AJ Storr, a 6'6" wing named to the Big East All-Freshman team after averaging nine points and shooting 40% from three this season. Other pieces to watch include volatile guards Posh Alexander and André Curbelo, as well as DePaul transfer wing David Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer this season.
The backcourt at St. John’s could get crowded in a hurry depending on whether Pitino brings along pieces from Iona. The strength of the Gaels this season was its two guards, Walter Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins. One NBA scout told Sports Illustrated that Clayton could be in the second-round mix should he declare for the NBA draft this cycle and would be an impact addition for virtually any college program, while Jenkins averaged 15 points and nearly five assists per game. Pitino said in October that his Iona backcourt “definitely could have been his backcourt at Louisville.”
That said, some combination of the current Red Storm guards and guards following from Iona, combined with a big like Soriano, is enough to immediately bring St. John’s to relevancy. That may not be a Big East–winning roster, but it’s certainly enough to have St. John’s in the NCAA tournament next season. And that’s before Pitino hits the wider transfer portal, where St. John’s seems likely to be a highly attractive destination. Billionaire Queens native and Vitamin Water cofounder Mike Repole has already committed to helping St. John’s and Pitino with NIL, which could help Pitino reel in a big fish or two.
Can Pitino win a national championship at St. John’s? That’s been a popular question in industry circles. The conventional wisdom is no—the program as presently constructed isn’t necessarily built to compete at that high a level. But it’d be foolish to bet against Pitino, who will without question be even more hungry for another championship to seal his legacy after his 2013 title at Louisville was vacated. If nothing else, bringing the St. John’s program back to relevance and having success in the Big Dance would be a major win, considering where the Red Storm program has been lately.
As for his time at Iona, Pitino leaves the program better than he found it three years ago, but relatively similar in its overall place in the national landscape. The Gaels are still without an NCAA tournament win in 13 appearances since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Facilities improvements and more national attention will help the program, but Iona’s reality of being in a one-bid league that Pitino so often bemoaned is still the case and will likely not change with its Hall of Fame coach gone. Potential targets for the Iona vacancy include Tobin Anderson, the Fairleigh Dickinson coach fresh off a historic upset of Purdue in the NCAA tournament, Bryant coach and former Iona assistant Jared Grasso, and UConn associate head coach Kimani Young.