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Rick Pitino: St. John’s ‘not a great basketball team’ yet despite strong start to Big East play

St. John’s isn’t a great basketball team yet. Just ask Rick Pitino.

The Red Storm entered Wednesday tied for second in the Big East with a 3-1 record in conference play, but their title-winning head coach believes the program remains “a work in progress” two months into his first season there.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled with the wins we have had, but this is not a great basketball team by any stretch of the imagination,” Pitino said before Wednesday night’s game against Providence at Madison Square Garden.

“We have so much room for improvement. What I am hoping for is that come March, we are a really good basketball team. There’s no reason for this team to be a great basketball team right now. They have had major injuries and they are all new to each other, new to me.”

Indeed, Pitino overhauled the St. John’s roster after arriving from Iona in March, bringing back only two players — including leading scorer and rebounder Joel Soriano — from last season’s team. One of his key transfers, guard RJ Luis Jr., has already missed 10 games due to multiple injuries. Another, guard Chris Ledlum, missed two recent games with a sprained ankle.

Despite the lack of continuity, St. John’s began Wednesday 11-4 overall and was fresh off a road win against Villanova.

Still, Pitino sees areas for improvement. He was critical of his team’s defensive effort following a Dec. 10 loss to Boston College in which St. John’s blew a 10-point lead in the second half.

“We are building a culture, we are building fundamentals, we are building different offenses and defenses in our program, and it’s going to take some time,” Pitino said this week. “But I am hoping by March we will be a much better basketball team than we are now.”

Luis, who transferred from UMass, has provided a scoring punch since returning in late December from shin splints. He averaged 12.3 points per game over the Red Storm’s last three games — all wins.

The 6-7 Luis ranks second on St. John’s with 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, while his 1.8 steals per game tie him with point guard Daniss Jenkins for the team lead.

“I just like competing. It really doesn’t matter what it is,” Luis said before facing Providence. “Just enjoy being on the court and doing anything the team needs me to do to help us win.”

Pitino, 71, who led Providence to the Final Four in 1987, joined St. John’s with the goal of turning around a program that’s only made three NCAA Tournament appearances since 2002.

The 3-1 record against Big East opponents put the Red Storm behind only Seton Hall (4-1) and tied them with UConn and Villanova.

“It takes winning, but I also think it takes time,” Pitino said of restoring the St. John’s fan base. “You’re not like the Jets, the Giants or the Knicks where people just show up whether you win or lose, because the tickets are so expensive.”

He continued, “College basketball is different. … So much of St. John’s [fan base] is subway alumni, people that didn’t attend here. Those subway alumni can leave in a matter of days if you don’t give them a good product.”