At their best, these Johnnies give us glimpses of what they’re going to be once Rick Pitino’s plan has a few years to germinate and grow. At their best, they play defense with such ferocity that you see genuine fear in opponents’ eyes as they try to beat the 10-second clock just to get the ball over halfcourt.
At their best they have multiple inside-out options — Daniss Jenkins, RJ Luis Jr., Jordan Dingle — who keep the other guys on their feet, they have Chris Ledlum logging lunch-pail minutes, they have Joel Soriano having the kind of game he had against Villanova on Wednesday night — 21 points, nine rebounds — which makes it all feel so complete.
For now, we get the best of the Johnnies for portions of games. We got it a lot Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Johnnies slapping Villanova around early and then stepping on the Wildcats’ necks late, securing a thorough 70-50 win in front of 12,859 mostly satisfied fans (save for the notable exceptions of Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono, all of them sitting courtside and looking glummer as the spread grew wider).
“Our pressure was about as good as it could be,” Pitino said, saving his highest praise for Soriano. “He knew how important this game was for us. He was magnificent. I was happy with the way he played, happy with how the team played.”
If the Johnnies could bottle those portions, then distribute them evenly throughout games against the likes of Creighton and UConn and Marquette in the weeks to come, then maybe we could view this team as something more than what it seems destined to be: a model for the program going forward, a template for what’s to come.
Of course, for now, that’s plenty good enough.
For now, blowing out Villanova and giving Creighton, UConn and Marquette hell right to the final horn is a welcome step forward from what has too often passed for Big East basketball in these parts the past 25 years. The fact that it’s been able to do it enough — including the Red Storm’s first sweep of the Cats in 31 years — means something a little more tangible.
“It was a big game for us,” Pitino said. “I won’t bulls–t you guys. They needed it. We needed it. And we came through.”
“We knew this game was very important, we knew they’d bring a lot of energy, and we met the challenge,” Soriano said.
They did. It means you can really begin to make plans for the first couple of days of the NCAA Tournament because it sure feels like the Johnnies are now playing for seed lines and not simply sweat out Selection Sunday. Maybe that felt a little tenuous as they bookended heartbreaking losses to Creighton and Marquette around a full-on meltdown against Seton Hall last week.
But the Johnnies are 13-7 now, and their NET ranking, 41 coming in, is likely to crawl up a couple of notches since Nova was at 36. They also have a second half of a league schedule which is far more agreeable than the first half was, with four games left against DePaul and Georgetown, the league’s bottom-feeders, with five more games left at the Garden (and six more likely Quad-1 opportunities).
In coming years, their climb won’t be quite so innocent and their bar won’t be set quite so modestly, which was the whole idea when Pitino was hired. For the better part of two decades, January and February have been long slogs of misery interspersed with occasional bursts of prosperity on Utopia Parkway, but even those years were a scuffle to the end.
In so many ways, that’s why this was the first genuine must-have game of the Pitino Era. They needed to halt the losing streak before it grew infected. They needed to snare a Quad 1 win. They needed to prove that the 0-3 lull was the aberration, and not the 4-1 start.
“We lost a couple of really tough games at the buzzer,” Pitino said, “but tonight we cast no shadow on who was going to win this game.”
Said Dingle (12 points, four assists): “We know every game we play has a lot of significance as far as our postseason potential.”
It’s fair now to think about that potential being more like a probability. This game did that. It was a reaffirmation of what this team is: a crew of workers, a cast of eclectic parts put together on the fly, expertly coached. Mostly that yields some awfully fun basketball, some nights when it feels like the Johnnies can play with anyone. Sometimes it’s something else.
That’s OK. It’s early in the game. This is the team against whom all teams the next few years will be judged. So far they not only have been equal to that task, they’ve relished it.
And force you to wonder what’s to come.