St. John's Daniss Jenkins (5) goes for the three-point shot...

St. John's Daniss Jenkins (5) goes for the three-point shot against Butler Bulldogs on Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024 in Indianapolis. Credit: Gary Brockman

INDIANAPOLIS — St. John’s path to the NCAA Tournament has been a narrow one since the stretch of eight losses in 10 games. However, it is still there and the Red Storm is now racing along it.

St. John’s continued its drive back into the conversation for an at-large bid on Wednesday night by completely overpowering fellow bubble teamer Butler in an 82-59 Big East win before a hostile crowd of 7,279 at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

The victory is St. John’s third straight and gives them a season sweep of the Bulldogs. The ‘Quad 1’ win and the 23-point margin of victory should give it a huge boost in the NET rankings that the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses.

It’s been an eye-opening turnaround in the 10 days since the Red Storm fell to Seton Hall in the last of those eight losses.

“We've become a total team,” coach Rick Pitino said. “In the beginning it was Joel [Soriano] and DJ [Daniss Jenkins]. Now it's Jordan [Dingle], Led [Chris Ledlum], guys coming off the bench [like] Glenn [Taylor Jr.]. We become a total team. The offensive was brilliant.”

Indeed St. John’s (17-12, 9-9) seems to have a very different personality. They took a 12-point lead in the first half and, though it was pared to six at halftime, they never let up in pursuit of a win.

They outscored Butler (16-13, 7-11) 43-26 in the second half. And it was the defense and effort categories that stood out all game. They had 13 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points and turned 15 turnovers into 23 points. And the Storm shrugged off losing Dingle for 16:49 of the first half after picking up two quick fouls and Daniss Jenkins shooting just 4-for-13.

For the second straight game Taylor was a tone-setter with his effort and smart play. He finished with a season-high 17 points, three assists and three steals in a very good defensive effort. “Glenn’s becoming a stopper right now and that’s something we need,” Pitino said.

RJ Luis Jr. had 15 points and Jenkins had eight points, nine assists and only one turnover. Former St. John’s star Posh Alexander had 15 points for Butler.

The Feb. 18 Seton Hall loss was followed by a Pitino news conference where he coarsely criticized the players’ shortcomings, listing several by name who were “slow laterally” and committed fouls as a result. He has said it was a motivational tactic and even began Wednesday’s postgame news conference joking, “Well, obviously when you go on the road in a hostile environment and the other team shoots 39% — 33% from three — you’ve got to be quick laterally.”

“I know his statements were out of love,” Ledlum said. “He cares for us and just wants us to reach our full potential. . . . When he says those things, we just take it as tough love. We don’t take it personally.”

Pitino said something had to be done after Seton Hall ran roughshod over the Storm in the second half.

“I knew if we didn't get better defensively, it was over,” Pitino explained. “It was over. All we were doing is fouling. We weren’t stopping people and I knew it was over. . . . These guys know nobody loves a basketball team like I love these guys. So, I do things necessary to help them.”

Pitino’s plan seems to have the Storm back on track. If they win their final two regular season games — at last-place DePaul and at home against 10th-place Georgetown — the Storm could finish as high as fifth place and even get a bye into the conference tournament quarterfinals.

“Tonight we were just relentless on defense, we were very aggressive on offense,” Pitino said. “These guys try so hard. They want to do it badly. What I said was all staged to try to get them to wake the hell up and they woke up in a big way. Because they, right now, are playing great basketball.”

I told them ‘you beat a really good team on the road, but don’t let up. You’ve got to keep on improving and keep your goals high,’” he continued. “I think they will because they’re a tremendous group.”

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