CHARLESTON, S.C. — The overreactions were predictable — from both directions.
The idea that St. John’s doesn’t have enough talent, that the ugly loss to Michigan was an indication of the long season to come. Or the notion that it was an irrelevant result, that a Hall of Fame coach will just magically fix what ails the Johnnies.
Neither is right.
It’s fair for there to be concern after Monday night’s no-show at the Garden. By the same token, it was one game for a brand new collection of players against a Big Ten opponent that has so far looked like a top-15 team and was clearly a bad matchup for St. John’s.
Rick Pitino has been saying for weeks this will take time, that his team is very much a work in progress, an assortment of players being asked to play different roles than they have their entire college careers. So many of the newcomers have never won before at the college level, and are re-learning how to play under Pitino. It looked like it against Michigan.
The defense was poor and frequently out of position. The offense, after a solid start, devolved into one-on-one ball that Pitino said afterwards, “shocked the s— out of me.”
My biggest takeaway from the loss was the lack of a response. It was a 37-35 game with 2:36 left in the first half when Michigan went on an 11-3 run to close the stanza. St. John’s never recovered. It took a big punch and never got up, like a fighter with a glass jaw.
St. John’s didn’t handle adversity well. It looked like a group that had never been through this together, which it obviously had not. This isn’t an excuse, it’s reality: This is new for everyone. New players for Pitino. New coach and offensive and defensive systems for his players. New level of competition for so many key figures on this team, most notably Daniss Jenkins, Chris Ledlum and Jordan Dingle.
They certainly struggled with Michigan’s quickness and length, looking a step slow and unsure of themselves under the bright lights of the Garden. It’s a transition for that key trio, who all looked very different in the season opener against Stony Brook, combining to score 46 points on 19 of 39 shooting.
It certainly didn’t help matters that Dingle — last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year and the nation’s leading returning scorer — missed extended time in the summer and the fall, slowing down this group’s development as a unit. UMass transfer RJ Luis, one of the most talented offensive players on this team, has been out since Oct. 1 and only just returned to practice. I fully expect Pitino to go small upon Luis’ return to action, using him and Glenn Taylor Jr. at the 3 and 4 when Ledlum, the Red Storm’s starting power forward, isn’t on the floor. That’s one way to deal with the limited depth in the frontcourt, a concern Pitino voiced on Monday.
This all sets up an intriguing few days down south in the Charleston Classic. St. John’s opens on Thursday with North Texas, a quality mid-major program coming off an NIT title last season, but one that lost its top three scorers from a year ago and has a new coach. The Johnnies face either Dayton or LSU the following day, another solid opponent, but nowhere near the pedigree of a Michigan. LSU lost at home to Nicholls State. Dayton will be without starting point guard Malachi Smith. Both are very winnable games that would earn St. John’s a shot at national- power Houston, the sixth-ranked team in the country.
I expect to see a different St. John’s at TD Arena, one closer to resembling the well-rounded group that blew out Stony Brook than the overwhelmed one that was beaten soundly by Michigan. It will have heard about their poor performance a few hundred times by tipoff. Pitino expects a team that will be “loaded for bear against North Texas, because they’ll be very upset at themselves.”
That isn’t meant to suggest all the problems will be fixed. It isn’t going to happen overnight. Patience is required for a fan base that understandably doesn’t have much. Adjustments, from the coaching staff and the players, are going to be made, and they may not be noticeable immediately.
But you often learn about a team after it takes a punch. It didn’t deal with Michigan’s haymaker well on Monday night. This early-season tournament is an opportunity for the Johnnies to respond the right way and ease the premature concerns.