The expectations should be significant, but not fantastical.
St. John’s has put together a roster that is NCAA Tournament-caliber on paper and can potentially challenge to be near the bottom of top-25 rankings lists.
But fans shouldn’t expect magic in Year 1 of the Rick Pitino era, either.
That, essentially, was the feedback The Post received after it polled three college basketball analysts — Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, John Fanta of Fox Sports and Travis Branham of 247Sports — and three college coaches, on condition of anonymity.
St. John’s should be able to finish in the top five of what is expected to be a loaded Big East after bringing in 11 new players in the two months since Pitino was hired.
“They have an all-time great coach, so he can really maximize what they have,” one Big East coach said. “I think Marquette, Xavier, UConn, Creighton potentially are all ahead of them. But after that, I don’t see why they couldn’t put themselves in position to be top-six at the very least. They’ll be right back in the conversation as being a postseason team.”
Added Rothstein: “They’re a team now that should be projected as an NCAA Tournament team.”
Pitino’s name still resonates, even at the age of 70 and six years removed from last coaching at the high-major level, according to Branham.
His history of player development and producing pros remains enticing. In an extremely short period of time, he was able to raise the talent level of the program.
Pitino’s transfer class is ranked fourth nationally by 247Sports, the top-ranking resource for recruiting.
Of the 10 transfers brought in by St. John’s, six are considered four-stars ranking in the top-150. The one high school prospect, four-star wing Brady Dunlap, is a top-150 recruit. On paper at least, Pitino and his staff did well flipping the roster and surrounding standout big man Joel Soriano, an All-Big East second-team selection last year, with a capable supporting cast.
The key addition, the coaches and analysts agreed, was Jordan Dingle, the Ivy League Player of the Year and the nation’s second-leading scorer a year ago at 23.4 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting.
A Valley Stream, N.Y. native, Dingle heard from schools in every power conference in the country. Oregon, UCLA, Arkansas and Texas were among the interested parties.
Rothstein believes his addition gives St. John’s two all-league caliber players in Soriano and Dingle, a potentially dynamic inside-out duo.
A few of the coaches wondered about his adjustment to moving up from the Ivy League to one of the premier conferences in the country, but the 6-foot-3 guard clearly raises the ceiling for the program next winter.
“When they got Dingle, other Big East coaches said, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a problem for us,’ ” Fanta said. “That’s a huge chip.”
One of the coaches was highest on two of the younger additions: UMass transfer RJ Luis and Dunlap.
The uber-talented 6-7 Luis, who also considered Louisville and Texas A&M, was an All-Atlantic 10 freshman team selection. Dunlap was signed with Notre Dame before Mike Brey’s departure.
He picked St. John’s over Villanova, North Carolina, Nebraska and Penn State.
“I think [Luis] is the best long-term prospect. I think the kid is a pro,” the coach said. “I like Dunlap a lot. We know what Pitino has done with shooters similar to him. I’m a huge fan of his. To get him so late, it’s a good get.”
Pitino particularly focused on adding shooting, bringing in a number of players, from Dingle to Connecticut transfer Nahiem Alleyne to Iona transfer Daniss Jenkins and Dunlap, who can stroke it from deep.
St. John’s was 232nd in the nation in 3-point shooting a year ago at 33.1 percent.
Even worse, it only attempted 17.7 a game, which was 322nd in the country. Teams frequently packed the paint against the Johnnies, daring them to shoot from the perimeter.
That will be a strength of next year’s team.
Last season’s St. John’s players hit 407 career 3-pointers and the newcomers have made 795, and that doesn’t include Dunlap.
“Where in the past a lot of teams played zone against St. John’s, they’re not going to be playing zone against them next year, because you got guys who are going to make shots,” one of the coaches said. “When you have three or four guys who can shoot, then it becomes harder to guard a big guy or it becomes harder to guard a penetrating guard, because the defense is stretched out. They’re worried about guarding shooters. St. John’s hasn’t had that.”
There are a few areas of concern. It’s a completely new team, so it could take time for the group to become cohesive.
Another is the thin frontcourt. Iona 6-9 transfer Quinn Slazinski only played in seven games last year for the Gaels due to a foot injury.
Kansas transfer forward Zuby Ejiofor, while a talented former top-50 recruit, is raw and averaged just 5.2 minutes in his one season for the Jayhawks.
A lot will be riding on Soriano’s broad shoulders as the Red Storm will likely play small often with Luis and talented Oregon State wing Glenn Thomas Jr. at the 3 and the 4.
“I can see that being a problem,” another Big East coach said. “And then you’ve got a lot of similar guys. They’ve added like seven perimeter players. How many of them are going to be totally unique from each other? That would be my other thing, too.”
Offseason hype, it should be noted, is not necessarily new for St. John’s. It was supposedly one of the spring’s winners last year, after landing highly regarded transfers David Jones and Andre Curbelo and keeping much of the roster intact.
It obviously didn’t translate. Pitino wouldn’t be at St. John’s otherwise.
This, however, feels different.
There isn’t any concern about coaching, not with a legend like Pitino running the show.
The roster feels like it fits, a balance between shooters and slashers, experienced and young players with upside.
“Fact of the matter is Coach Pitino is going to coach them up. They’re going to get better,” one of the college coaches said. “You’re going to see a more organized team. It’s not going to be as chaotic as it was. It’s going to be more cleaned up.”
Said Fanta: “It is a tournament team. Dingle is going to be one of the best guards in the Big East. So you have one of the best guards in the Big East, you have one of the best bigs in the Big East [in Soriano] and you have one of the best coaches in the Big East.”
The coach is obviously the driving force behind all the optimism.
But players win games — and the experts believe St. John’s has enough of them to return to March Madness.