St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino and players...

St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino and players react late in the second half of an NCAA Big East men’s basketball game against the Seton Hall Pirates at UBS Arena on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Words can be intended to motivate and Las Vegas can try to forecast an outcome but, for the first time in a very long time, there is no way of knowing what to expect from St. John’s in its next game.

When last seen, the Red Storm was blowing a 19-point first half lead against visiting Seton Hall Sunday and suffering a 68-62 Big East loss in a game they probably had to win for a chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

The defeat was their eighth in 10 games and, at the news conference afterward, a dispirited Rick Pitino lamented how he’d found this season joyless and criticized his team — in a way many observers found harsh — for their lack of toughness and physical shortcomings.

Pitino told Newsday on Monday “I sometimes want my players to hear my words and read my words. That was my intention.”

Whether it all gets his desired result comes Wednesday night in the nation’s capital, when ninth-place St. John’s (14-12, 6-9) plays 10th-place Georgetown (8-17, 1-13) at Capital One Arena. The Hoyas have lost 10 straight by an average of 13.9 points and their only conference win came against a DePaul team without one.

Sunday night was not the first time Pitino had been critical of his team though these words were more coarse sounding. And players haven’t appeared to mind so far. In the days after one critique earlier this season, Chris Ledlum said “sometimes you have to take the message — you have to take what is said and not how it is said.”

Pitino knows his players better than anyone — frequently praising their character if not their execution — and obviously believes his words will motivate them. The Red Storm hasn’t shortchanged anyone with its effort of late. And so a better performance against the Hoyas is the most likely outcome.

There is another, less likely possibility. Could the players, in hearing and reading their coach’s words of intent, have their passion extinguished? Pitino looked and sounded borderline hopeless after the Seton Hall loss. He said the program “kind of lost the season” in how it recruited and said he hoped to finish the regular season with a better than .500 record.

Maybe the players will hear it as a challenge.

It’s still possible for St. John’s to reach the NCAA Tournament via the Big East’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. And while the last five games include three against the Hoyas and DePaul — games that offer little tournament-resume benefit — there is a home games against No. 15 Creighton and a road game with Butler that could make an impression. Maybe five regular-season wins and two or three in the Big East’s tournament would get it in?

But one more slip absolutely makes it conference title-or-bust.

St. John’s has relied heavily on its six fifth-year seniors to make it worthy of a first NCAA Tournament trip since 2019. And among those who play significant minutes, only Iona transfer Daniss Jenkins has delivered the goods.

UConn transfer Nahiem Alleyne has been statistically about the same as last season. Holdover Joel Soriano is down slightly in scoring and rebounds from a year ago. Penn transfer Jordan Dingle’s scoring average is off 13 points from last season. Harvard transfer Ledlum’s average is 9.9 points lower than 2022-23. But no one of them is to blame.

If Pitino really thinks the door is closed on this season, the move would be to play the guys he needs for next season: RJ Luis Jr., Simeon Wilcher, Zuby Ejiofor and Brady Dunlap. But maybe everyone needs to see what St. John’s is like coming out of a couple tumultuous days.

Pitino questioned the Red Storm’s toughness. The game at Georgetown is a chance for them to answer.

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