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Rick Pitino returns to Big East action when St. John’s welcomes Xavier

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Like most college basketball observers, Sean Miller believes Rick Pitino is one of the best coaches of all-time.

“He has made an already difficult, challenging conference even better,” Miller said during Big East media day.

Now it’s Pitino’s turn to try to follow Miller’s example.

Pitino will coach St. John’s in a Big East game for the first time Wednesday night in New York when the Red Storm host Xavier in the league opener for both schools.

Xavier (6-5) nearly went from the back of the pack to the top of the Big East last season in the first season of Miller’s second stint at the Cincinnati school. He led the Musketeers to a second-place league finish and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2022-23.

Miller directed Xavier to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2009 before departing for Arizona.

This season, Pitino is trying to turn around the Red Storm (7-3), who haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2000.

St. John’s and Xavier have each been off since cruising to home wins Saturday, when the Red Storm beat Fordham 77-55 and the Musketeers defeated Winthrop 75-59.

The win represented a much-needed defensive improvement for St. John’s, which left Pitino fuming after an 86-80 loss to Boston College on Dec. 10 in which the Eagles shot a robust 56.4 percent (31 of 55), including 61.9 percent (26 of 42) inside the 3-point line.

On Saturday, Fordham shot just 25.4 percent from the field (15 of 59) and was 13 of 41 (31.7 percent) on its two-point attempts.

“I told the guys, ‘If you’re going to rely on your offense, you’re going to finish dead last in the Big East,’ ” said Pitino, who won national championships at Kentucky and Louisville and directed five schools to the NCAA Tournament, including Providence of the Big East.

The nonconference slate was filled with hiccups for Xavier, which has struggled to establish depth while losing to Purdue, Houston and Washington as well as mid-majors Oakland and Delaware.

Quincy Olivari (17.6 points per game) and Desmond Claude (15.5 points per game) are the only players averaging at least 10 points per game for Xavier, which had five players average in double figures last season.

“We have to grow our depth,” Miller said Saturday. “It’s nice when you can sub a little bit and we’ve struggled mightily. A big reason why we’re 6-5 is just our lack of production game in and game out from our bench.”

Joel Soriano leads St. John’s with 18.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

–Field Level Media

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