Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Michigan vs. St. John’s score, takeaways: Wolverines spoil Rick Pitino’s return to Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK — It had been two decades since early-season buzz and optimism surrounded St. John’s like this. Twenty years since optimism was so potent it warranted the Red Storm renting out the building in the first part of the nonconference schedule. 

St. John’s last played at Madison Square Garden this early in the season in 2003. Hiring Rick Pitino changes a lot — but on Monday, it didn’t change the outcome. Michigan easily dished Pitino his first loss at St. John’s, winning 89-73 after a laugher of a second half. 

Before it came to that, the Garden was buzzing for the Johnnies in a way it seldom has over the previous 15-plus years. A red glow lit up the arena pre-game. On the videoboard, a pre-recorded Pitino clip included the declaration: “St . John’s is going to be back, I guarantee it.”

“Run This Town” blared over the speakers as pyrotechnics brought thousands of SJU fans to their feet. 

This was to be the first big moment for the Red Storm in their new era. 

And then Michigan spoiled it all. 

Maybe, later this season or two or three years down the way, we’ll see St. John’s winning an NCAA Tournament game or two and look back on this dud of a debut at MSG with a laugh. It’s a humble start, no doubt.  

“They played intelligent basketball. And we did not,” Pitino said. “We played like a team in early November. And that was a difference in the game.” 

Here are three big takeaways from Michigan’s Monday night mauling at MSG.

A good chance everyone was wrong on Michigan

Time for a mea culpa. I had Michigan 62nd heading into the season. No one was really in on U-M — the Wolverines were picked 11th in the Big Ten — yet few power-conference teams have been more impressive through three games than this group. 

Credit to Michigan interim coach Phil Martelli for guiding the ship. With Juwan Howard still not ready to return after recent heart surgery, Martelli (a man with nearly 450 wins) has comfortably coached Michigan to a 3-0 start with an average win margin of 24.7 points over 2023 NCAA Tournament team UNC Asheville, Youngstown State and St. John’s. 

“I’m appropriately tired, and it feels good,” Martelli told me afterward. 

The Wolverines aren’t overloaded with talent, but they look like a tight unit so far. At 18-16 last season, Michigan was a letdown in part because of injuries. It’s an offensive machine at the moment, dropping 89 or more in all three games; on Monday, it scorched St. John’s to the tune of 1.24 points per possession. 

“They’re gonna have a great season,” Pitino said. “I don’t follow the Big Ten too much, but there’s not too many teams better than Michigan, I can assure you of that. Because they score so well. They rebound the ball. They share the ball.”

It’s still unclear when Howard will come back, but between Martelli running the day-to-day, Howard Eisley playing offensive coordinator and Saddi Washington running the defense, this group has something really solid going. It’s why I picked it as one of the best coaching groups in college basketball this offseason

As for the win and the environment, Martelli, a bona fide don of Philadelphia basketball, couldn’t help himself

“You’re gonna get pissed, but, (Madison Square Garden is) the second best basketball arena in the country,” he told the media minutes after the win. “You’re well aware the Palestra is the best basketball building in America.”

There may no be quick-fixing this St. John’s D

When I sat down with Pitino at Big East Media Day in October, he was ebullient on all matters except one. Pitino told me his team’s defensive prowess was nowhere near the level it needed to be in order to have NCAA Tournament credentials. He said he was bracing for the first few weeks of the season, because he sensed there was a lot more work to be done. 

With nearly five decades of professional basketball experience, the man knows what he’s talking about. The Red Storm was imponent defensively most of the night. That might even be putting it too nicely. In fact, I’ll let Pitino’s words tell the story — succinctly. In his first postgame MSG presser in ages, he was rational but was blunt.

Three pull-quotes: 

  • “Our frontcourt depth is terrible.”
  • “Our offense shocked the s— out of me. Shocked the hell out of me that we didn’t share the ball.”
  • “I always tell them … the film never lies. It never lies. You know, when you watch a great movie, the same things are gonna happen in that movie. And they’re gonna watch it tomorrow, they’re gonna be very embarrassed at their play.”

The Johnnies were listless throughout the second half. Pitino acknowledged his team didn’t come close to matching the fervor of the St. John’s fans (attendance on Monday night: 14,188). His biggest stunner was how his team went limp on the offensive end in the second half. The Red Storm looked content to watch Michigan run away with the game. It would be stunning to see this kind of body language and collective performance from this team by the middle of conference play. 

But to that point, Pitino said, “We better be careful now, because this early schedule is tough.”

A couple minutes later, he deadpanned about the schedule: “And the Big East will be much easier.”

Few teams brought more intrigue — or hype — heading into November than St. John’s. We can call this exactly what it was: A flop. Pitino has a project on his hands, perhaps one of his tougher assignments of the past 10 years (with stops that include Iona and the EuroLeague). So, in typical Pitino fashion, Monday night did not conclude with him leaving MSG to head back home to his cozy abode on the grounds of Winged Foot Golf Club. The man is a preparation freak. He made sure a meeting room at the nearby Renaissance Hotel was booked well in advance, in case the coaches needed it to review video ASAP after a loss. Monday night brought a loss, which means Monday night brought a study session. Within 90 minutes of the game ending, the St. John’s staff was back at the team hotel and poring over the tape. 

Dug McDaniel‘s career night a major Michigan development

Michigan may well be one of the 25 best teams in the country right now, but St. John’s didn’t offer up enough of a resistance to accurately gauge the Wolverines’ potential. Despite that, two players offered up a horizon of hope for this season. 

Alabama transfer Nimari Burnett opened his night making his first eight shots. He finished with 21 points and was responsible for keeping Michigan in step with an excited St. John’s team in the first 10 minutes of the game. He had a career-best 19 points — with six minutes left in the first half. 

“We settled in because Nimari settled in,” Martelli said. 

The crazy part: Burnett was coming off a bagel a few nights earlier. He didn’t score against Youngstown State. For all he did, it was sophomore point guard Dug McDaniel who was the MVP. He scored a game-high 26 points, plus seven assists and six rebounds. McDaniel is listed at 5-foot-11, but I can report that’s a classic generous media guide boost from his school. 

If he’s going to be this kind of playmaker — a plot point few envisioned — then it can change Michigan’s calculus. Martelli told me McDaniel’s had a big on-court and off-court maturation process since the spring. It all culminated into a career night on Monday. McDaniel is diminutive but demonstrative in his style. A fun player and could grow into one of the best guards in the Big Ten. How much U-M has to rely on him will be key. 

“He really has to play (almost) 40 minutes,” Martelli said. 

Michigan’s backup options to run the offense are Burnett and not-ready-yet freshman George Washington. (Jaelin Llewellyn is still recovering from an ACL injury.) 

Before the game, Michigan players were donning those “MICHIGAN VS. EVERYBODY” shirts that have become the football team’s rallying cry. In a way, it extended to the men’s hoops team due to the low-end projections from across the sport. Motivation for this team? Not so much, per the players. 

“We don’t really pay too much attention to [preseason rankings],” McDaniel said. “We don’t pay attention to the outside noise. It’s kind of fun being underdogs.”

A true test to their credentials will come next week, when Michigan travels to the Bahamas to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. A 2-1 or 3-0 record in that bracket will break this season wide open. Here’s to hoping Howard is healthy and back on the sideline in time for that event.

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