Rick Pitino apologizes for criticizing St. John’s players: ‘These guys have never failed me’

Two useful things happened for the St. John’s on Wednesday night: First, it won a basketball game for the first time in two weeks — just the second time in seven games — and then Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino apologized for trashing his roster over the weekend.

“These guys have never failed me,” Pitino said after his team built a 21-point lead and held on for a 90-85 victory at Georgetown that snapped a three-game losing streak. “I have failed them with the fundamentals.”

That was quite a change in tone from Sunday, when his team blew a 19-point lead and lost to Seton Hall, an eighth loss in 10 games that all but torpedoed St. John’s hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid. Afterward, Pitino called his first season leading the program “the most unenjoyable experience I’ve had since I’ve been coaching.”

He didn’t stop there. Pitino went on to call his team “so non-athletic that we cannot guard anyone without fouling,” and more specifically named three players who are “slow laterally” and a fourth who is “physically weak.” Just to cover all the bases, Pitino essentially threw his coaching staff under the bus.

“We kind of lost this season with the way we recruited,” he said. “We recruited the antithesis of the way I coach, with speed, quickness, fundamentals, strength and toughness. We did not do that. It’s a good group, they try hard, they’re just not very tough.”

Pitino walked all of that back after the win Wednesday, which improved his team to 15-12 overall, 7-9 in the Big East. “Words matter,” he said, adding that when his staff alerted him some of the players were hurt by his comments, he addressed the team.

“I absolutely love you guys,” Pitino said he told them. “I would never, ever want to embarrass you. It’s my bad. I’m at fault. I should’ve never mentioned anybody by name. I didn’t mean it.”

He also clarified that he personally recruited everyone on the roster — and he got the players he wanted.

“My staff did not recruit these guys,” he said. “It was all me.”

And while he was saying sorry, “I want to apologize to any St. John’s fans,” Pitino continued, “because they’ve treated me like royalty.”

As for his players, senior transfer Jordan Dingle, the Ivy League Player of the Year last season at Penn, said they still have Pitino’s back — and they believe he has theirs, despite the harsh critique.

“We know how much he loves us and cares about us,” Dingle said, “and how much he cares about winning, so I don’t think guys really took it too much to heart.”

Many of Pitino’s former players say the same. He’s always been a tough coach to play for — one who rarely spares feelings — but he’s also taken three different programs to a Final Four and won two national championships in part because of his refusal to accept mediocrity.

His recent comments about the Red Storm roster “didn’t surprise me,” former Kentucky All-American Tony Delk, who Pitino once suggested should transfer at halftime of a game, told The Athletic this week. “The one thing I can say about Coach is he is brutally honest. It might be harder for this generation to accept that, but we accepted it, responded to it, and he got the most out of us. If I was those kids, I would stay and I would listen to him.”

Required reading

(Photo: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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