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Rick Pitino is making sure his St. John’s team is battle-tested

Last season, St. John’s opened with buy games against Merrimack, Lafayette and Central Connecticut State. The year before, five of its first six contests were similar low-major opponents that were paid to play at Carnesecca Arena.

This November?

After the opener with Stony Brook, St. John’s has faced teams from the Big Ten (Michigan) and Pac-12 (Utah), the projected best team in the Atlantic 10 (Dayton) and a quality mid-major known for elite defense (North Texas).

Clearly, the program is operating differently under Rick Pitino, and the schedule is one prime example.

“We’re never going to open up with four teams we should beat,” Pitino said after the Johnnies’ wrapped up the Charleston Classic with an impressive 91-82 victory over Utah in the third-place game. “We’re trying to open up with Alabama next year, we’re trying to play Duke at [Arthur Ashe Stadium]. Kevin Willard did that at Seton Hall and I think he had a great formula for getting Seton Hall to the NCAA Tournament.”

It should be noted that St. John’s was booked for the Charleston Classic well ahead of Pitino’s arrival. The Michigan game was part of the final year of the Gavitt Games, the annual Big Ten-Big East showcase. Still, the point stands. St. John’s non-conference schedule is significantly improved from recent years — St. John’s was ranked 341 in non-conference strength of schedule last season and 333 the year before — even if it only includes one more top-100 team, West Virginia.

In years past, Joel Soriano and St. John’s would exclusively load up on cupcakes like Stony Brook in their early season schedule. This season has seen a substantial step up in competition.
Robert Sabo
Pitino doesn’t believe in hunting for easy wins to open a season.
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It was a risk, throwing this brand new team into the deep end of the pool immediately. Particularly since top transfer Jordan Dingle missed most of the preseason with a shoulder injury and projected starting wing RJ Luis missed the opening stretch after breaking his hand on Oct. 1. The Johnnies weren’t ready to play Michigan, and they lost to Dayton in the semifinals after a strong first half. Ultimately, these early tests could be rewarding, possibly speeding up the development process. You have seen St. John’s grow up through adversity already, in terms of how it handled Utah in the second half when it looked like the game might get away and just by the strides forward this group has already made.

“It’s great for us to get that exposure early on and figure out what it is that we need to do as a team in order to improve on those areas that we may be lacking,” Dingle said. “The schedule has given us a great opportunity to do that.”

For years, St. John’s has beaten up on overmatched opponents this time of year, producing gaudy yet hollow records. The team has rarely been ready for Big East play, almost annually starting slow once the conference season begins. The Johnnies last started a league season over .500 after five games in 2010-11.

This team, however, will enter the season tested.

Think about this: St. John’s has already faced as many top-100 non-conference opponents this year (four) as the previous two years combined (four). Its two top-100 non-conference wins are one more than the Johnnies managed in the last two seasons.

Below are some other takeaways following the tournament:

• Chris Ledlum’s performance in the win over Utah stood out, and not just because shots fell in a 15-point, nine-rebound effort. It was noticeable changes he made. The undersized 6-foot-6 power forward took open shots when they were there rather than driving into traffic, which is something he had been doing too much of. Twice, after offensive rebounds he passed the ball out for open 3s rather than going back up against Utah’s 7-footers. Pitino said he wants him taking as many as seven 3s per game as long as the shots are there. That’s not something Ledlum, shooting 44.4 percent early on from beyond the arc, is accustomed to. He clearly has the ability, though, to be a weapon against bigger defenders on the perimeter, which could in turn open up driving lanes.

Chris Ledlum #8 of the St. John’s Red Storm drives to the basket past Aaron Scott #1 of the North Texas Mean Green.
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• Daniss Jenkins has received some criticism early in the year for his decision-making and shot-heavy play. He leads the team with 73 shot attempts, by far the most on St. John’s (Joel Soriano and Ledlum are second with 48). I do think he needs to orchestrate more, which he did in the last two games, producing 16 assists. What is clear from watching this team courtside is his leadership. Jenkins is always talking, particularly on defense. He’s trying to give guys confidence. There’s a lot to like about him, and as Dingle gets more comfortable and Luis returns, I expect to see Jenkins’ shot attempts go down.

• I wasn’t surprised to hear Pitino bring up his conversation with Nahiem Alleyne in which the UConn transfer apologized for his play rather than ask for more minutes. Everything you heard about the kid after he committed in the spring is just what a high-character person he is. He doesn’t complain. He didn’t do it last year with the Huskies despite a limited role. You could tell what an impression that made on the Hall of Fame coach, and Alleyne certainly earned his 17 minutes in the win over Utah with his defense — Pitino has said he’s the team’s best perimeter defender — and shot-making. He is going to be a critical depth piece for this team.

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