Paul Snyder’s Holiday Hoop Journal

Rick Pitino’s Press Conference

Most college basketball teams started their 2023-24 season on November 6th. I was excited to watch the Radford University Highlanders open up against number 19 University of North Carolina on ESPN’s ACC Network. The first half score had UNC up 46-41. It showed the Highlanders could play with a high ranked team. They lost the game 86-70, but I was hooked. Radford has two players from the Trinity-Pawling School. The same school I graduated from over 46 years ago. Trinity-Pawling is a small school in Pawling, NY. Wikipedia says it currently has an enrollment of 275 boys from grades 7-12.

Truth Harris and Justin Archer

On November 15th Radford was playing Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA and I was there courtside sitting next to the ESPN announcer watching Trinity-Pawling’s Justin Archer and Truth Harris play against VCU. VCU has made 19 NCAA Tournament appearances and in 2011 they made the NCAA Final Four. Radford played a great first half and the score was 33-33. The second half was all VCU. They outscored Radford 40-17. VCU held Radford to 18% shooting on 4 of 22 shots in the second half. VCU’s defense led to a pair of thunderous alley-oop dunks by sophomore forward Tobi Lawal. Lawal recorded a 49.5 inch vertical leap in 2023 preseason combine testing. His dunks lit up the crowd and VCU won 73-50.

The next day Thursday November 16th, I was on the road from Richmond, VA to Charleston, SC for the Charleston Classic to watch St. John’s play North Texas. St. John’s made the NCAA Final Four in 1985 during the heyday of the Big East Conference. Three of the Final Four teams were from the conference and Villanova won their first national championship beating Georgetown 66-64 in a game considered to be one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. This season St. John’s has a new coach, Rick Pitino. The Red Storm faithful are hoping he will get them back to those historic times. Their opening game against North Texas was a nail biter coming down to a N. Texas miss with 4 seconds left. St. John’s won 53-52 shooting 34% on 18 of 53 shots. N. Texas shot 32.7% on 18 of 55 shots.

The next game between Dayton and LSU was another thriller. LSU led by 15 (60-45) with 9:07 left. Koby Brea hit a 3 with 47 seconds to tie the game at 67 and Nate Santos hit a 3 with 4.1 seconds to complete the comeback with Dayton winning 70-67.

The win set up a semifinal match up with St. John’s at 2pm Friday November 17th. The game was very close. The score in the first half was tied 9 times with 5 lead changes. St. John’s led 40-38 at halftime. The second half was closely played until Dayton went on a 9-0 run to hold a 67-59 lead with 9:33 remaining. St. John’s couldn’t get closer than 6 points for the rest of the game. They were down by 12 with 48 seconds remaining and lost by 7 (88-81). In the post-game press conference Rick Pitino wasn’t happy. After following him throughout the MAAC Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament last season at Iona this was the most frustrated I’ve seen him. He didn’t like losing to Dayton and his frustration was evident. In his opening statement he said, “it’s about as frustrating, because the effort’s there, they want to win, they’re good guys, but they can’t absorb a scouting report.”

After the St. John’s loss to Dayton, Utah would lose 76-66 to no.6 Houston setting up a 3rd place matchup between St. John’s and Utah on Sunday November 19th. According to ESPN basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli, St. John’s had a full practice on Saturday November 18th and a walk through before playing the Runnin’ Utes. St. John exploded for 52 points in the first half. The Red Storm led 52-43 at halftime. Utah played St. John’s even in the second half (39-39). St. John’s took 3rd place in the Charleston Classic winning 91-82. As we go to press St. John’s is 4-2 on the season. They’re preparing for a December 1st Big East/Big 12 matchup with West Virginia in Morgantown, WV on ESPN2. I’ll be covering St. John’s again in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Brooklyn Showcase against Boston College on December 10th. I can’t wait to see how they’re progressing under Pitino’s tutelage.