St. John’s Women's Basketball Could Surprise Big East In 2017-18
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 23: Head Coach Joe Tartamella of the St. John's Red Storm reacts along the sidelines during the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Carnesecca Arena on February 23, 2013 in New York City at Carnesecca Arena on February 23, 2013 in New York City. St. John's Red Storm defeated Rutgers Scarlet Knights 61-48. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Despite being picked seventh in the Big East women’s basketball preseason poll, St. John’s can be a surprise in the conference this year.

Two years ago, the St. John’s women’s basketball team won the Big East conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in a four-year period.

Despite not making the NCAA Tournament a season ago, St. John’s did get valuable postseason experience in the WNIT where they lost to Michigan in the third round. Michigan’s coach is former St. John’s head coach Kim Barnes Arico.

Last week, at Big East Media Day, St. John’s was picked to finish seventh in the Big East. If they finish that low this year, it will be the first time they would finish that low in the conference since 2010-11 (tied for seventh).

This season, the team loses some key players from last year’s squad in forward Jade Walker and guard Aaliyah Lewis, who both averaged more than 10 points per game.

At media day, I asked head coach Joe Tartamella about how he would replace the leadership that is gone from last year. Keep in mind that St. John’s has four seniors on this year’s roster: guard Tamesha Alexander and forwards Curteeona Brelove, Maya Singleton, and Imana Littleton:

“It’s a natural progression,” Tartamella said. “Our younger players who had opportunities to be a part of the runs we have had the last couple of years are now older. We only have 10 that are eligible this year and last year I had 13. I feel like we have 10 that can play.”

Coach Tartamella also discussed how, despite the low preseason ranking, he is excited to see what his players can do.

“Regardless of the preseason poll, I am actually pretty excited about what they are going to be able to do and to show people.”

St. John’s had one representative on the All-Big East preseason team,  guard/forward Akina Wellere. Wellere, who is heading into her junior year, was third on the team in steals last year and shot 45 percent from three-point range in just around 30 minutes per game. She told me about the importance of everyone becoming a leader this season.

“In a sense, everyone on our team is a leader,” Wellere said. “Everybody has to pick up the role of teaching each other and learning from each other. All of us are leaders.”

Since Tartamella took over the head coach position in 2012-13, the team has gone 109-57 and has won nearly 65 percent of their conference games. So, how has he grown as a head coach over that time? Here is what he had to say about his time with St. John’s, which began as an associate coach.

“I’ve been at St. John’s for 15 years. My growth in that time has been tremendous in that the university has allowed me to grow as an individual. As a head coach, I used to live and die with every play that happened and you just can’t.”

He later added:

“Watching these young women grow up and seeing four of our players drafted in the last five years, for me, it’s been kind of a dream come true. I can’t be more appreciative to St. John’s for the opportunity they have given me. I’m a lot less tense probably than I was in year one as a head coach.”

Right around Thanksgiving, St. John’s will play in a tournament called the Gulf Coast Showcase, which begins November 24 against Western Michigan in Florida. If St. John’s wins that game, there’s a chance they can play the defending NCAA champions, South Carolina, in the next round. I asked Tartamella about that tournament and if he thinks it can help the team find their identity early in the year:

“I think every game is going to help determine who we become. That tournament will be interesting and it will be a big test playing three games in a row to see how we will be able to function within our league. I’m more interested in how we recover and play from one day to the next and also watching the development of our younger players.”

One of the young players to watch this season is redshirt freshman Tiana England. England missed the whole season last year because of a torn ACL, but she averaged 19 points per game during her senior year of high school in Connecticut.

Marquette is the favorite in the Big East this season after winning the conference tournament last year and they have the preseason Player of the Year in guard Allazia Blockton. As Wellere knows first hand, playing in the Big East has its challenges night in and night out.

“Every game is always tough, always hard no matter the team. We all play different styles so its not something we can expect every game. It’s always going to be a tough game.”

The St. John’s women’s team opens their season on November 10 against St. Francis (NY) at Carnesecca Arena (4:30 p.m ET). While their preseason projection might be low, don’t be surprised if they exceed those expectations this season and are playing their best basketball as the month of March gets closer.

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