St. John's head coach Rick Pitino reacts in the second half...

St. John's head coach Rick Pitino reacts in the second half against the Creighton Bluejays at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

INDIANAPOLIS — St. John’s found itself in the national spotlight 10 days ago, though not in the way most envisioned when Rick Pitino was hired as its coach.

Pitino gave some pointed criticisms of his players' shortcomings — some by name — after St. John’s blew a 21-point lead and suffered a damaging Big East loss to visiting Seton Hall. He also called his first season at the Red Storm helm “the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime.”

It turns out that wasn’t about the players but about the changing landscape of college basketball.

While the Hall of Fame coach apologized to his players for any feelings that had been hurt, it wasn’t until after Sunday’s upset of then-No. 15 Creighton at the Garden that he clarified the “unenjoyable” remark.

“It wasn’t because of that game . . . It’s because of the state of college basketball,” Pitino said. “It’s not the game I’ve loved for 50 years.”

He voiced displeasure earlier this season with the role NIL money plays, suggesting a salary cap and two-year player contracts. His concern is more with the NCAA transfer portal, how programs now recruit players who are playing on other teams and the freedom and ease with which they change schools.

“You’re going to see what I’m talking about the day after Selection Sunday, you’re going to see it,” Pitino said, referring to the first day players can place their names into the portal.

Players are more inclined to seek playing time and NIL opportunities than they are to stick with a program and develop into a team with a culture.

“I didn’t play Peyton Siva or Russ Smith as freshmen . . . [and] we developed them into a national championship team,” Pitino said, referring to two of his star guards at Louisville. “The thing that’s disturbed me so much is what’s going on and I don’t like this talk, even amongst my team, about ‘OK, let’s look at this player from this school or [that] school . . . I hear they’re going in the portal.’ I just hate that.”

The portal and free flow of players also has turned the mid-major ranks into something akin to a minor league for the high-profile programs or those with generous NIL opportunities.

“I hated the fact that every single good player in the MAAC got poached to go to a different place,” said Pitino, who coached Iona in that conference last season and did some poaching of his own from mid-majors to build the current Storm roster. “It’s just very disappointing for me, and a lot of coaches have gotten out because of that, not necessarily NIL.”

The NCAA installed rules that sought to make a second transfer require sitting out a year unless a waiver was granted. That rule — inconsistently applied thus far — quickly drew legal actions from several states. And last month the U.S. Department of Justice joined a federal multi-state lawsuit.

“NCAA Division I institutions compete with each other, not just on the playing field or in the arena, but to recruit and retain college athletes,” Jonathan Kanter, an assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, said in a news release. “College athletes should be able to freely choose the institutions that best meet their academic, personal and professional development needs without anti-competitive restrictions that limit their mobility by sacrificing a year of athletic competition.”

Pitino also has been critical of the NCAA's management of the new landscape — he once suggested the enforcement division be abolished — and mocked it for its lack of success in court battles trying to regulate it.

“It’s going to get to the point, somebody’s going to take them to court [because] they want to transfer mid-semester [and] play [immediately],” he said.

Speaking of the impact of the portal and NIL money, he added, “I just think it’s very, very difficult to do what I’ve done for 35 [or] 40 years: make players better, build them up, have them [come] back.”

St. John’s could return several players in its rotation for next season: Simeon Wilcher, RJ Luis Jr., Zuby Ejiofor, Brady Dunlap and Glenn Taylor Jr.

Pitino sounded like there is a good chance the program can retain most or all of them.

"But fortunately for us, we’ve got Zuby and Brady and Sim and Glenn who are all going to come back and love St. John’s and love playing in this environment,” Pitino said. “But it’s difficult on everybody and I don’t like it personally at all.”

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