Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Evolution with familiar personnel has Tartamella excited about St. John’s potential

Joe Tartamella discusses the year ahead for St. John’s at Big East media day. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK — It may appear hard to believe, but Joe Tartamella is a fortnight away from entering his tenth season as head women's basketball coach at St. John’s.

In many ways, it still feels as though Tartamella, 42, just moved one chair over on the bench yesterday after Kim Barnes Arico moved into the Big Ten and to the University of Michigan, rather than in April of 2012. Yet Tartamella has come his own long way since then, offering unique perspective on how both he and his players have adapted over time.

“I haven’t thought a lot about that,” he admitted at first before elaborating on his journey. “People make me think about it, but looking back through last year, I’ve changed my own arc of who I was. When I first got the job, it felt like you were drinking out of a fire hose. In reality, I don’t live and die by every play anymore, I’m probably a lot calmer than I was then, but I’ve had to learn.”

“Certainly, people were thrust into a different role last year whether they were ready or not, and I look at that as their opportunity to grow as players and as people, and understand what it was going to mean to work hard and compete. We’ve talked a lot this year about what our standard is in our program and where it is, and they’re very focused on what our goal is, and that is to be back where we want to be, in the NCAA Tournament, in the postseason, vying for a Big East championship. But you’ve got to do everything else to get there. We’re trying to win today every time we go to practice, and they’ve won a lot of games so far, so we feel pretty good.”

Last season, one in which the Red Storm navigated both COVID-19 and the injury-plagued campaign of Qadashah Hoppie, who has since transferred to Texas A&M, did provide a revelatory moment of sorts, though. The emergence of Leilani Correa as a cornerstone of the program as she enters her junior season, and continued maturation of Kadaja Bailey — who Tartamella has known since recruiting her and helping develop her as a seventh-grader attending St. John’s summer camp — offered more than just a glimmer of hope for the future, which suggests a newer look to the familiar brand on the floor is on the way.

“I think it helped give other people chances last year to be on the floor,” Tartamella said of Hoppie’s absence and the impact it had on Correa. “I think it helped Leilani become a better leader, it helped her understand what it meant for her to step up for her team. When I look at our players, she probably was ahead early and can continue to be ahead. I think the one thing we’re trying to build with her was both physical and mental, but the ability to understand what it meant to get her to be as good as she can be.”

“What does that mean for us? She’s an extremely gifted scorer, she can score at all levels. She’s increased her ability to defend, especially on the ball, so we’re trying to complete the game for her so that when she has the opportunity to be a pro — and she will — she’s going to be ready. Her IQ is a lot higher than people give her. She’s changed her mentality and the amount of work she’s put in from even the first two years. We know what we’re getting from her in practice. She’s confident and she’s ready to lead, and I think that’s the part we’re continuing to build on. We’re really excited to see what she’s going to do this year. We’ve got to make sure her arc is the same so that when she finishes her career here, she has a chance to be one of the best ever, if not on paper, THE best.”

As for Bailey, Tartamella laid out a more understated role for the senior, but highlighted her versatility as an advantage no other program in the Big East possesses.

“My expectation of her is a lot higher than many people,” he revealed with regard to Bailey. “What she does on the floor, however, is critical for us to do the things we’re talking about. The way we’re going to play this year gives her an opportunity to really expand on what she’s been doing. Her ability on the defensive end is as good as anyone we’ve talked about. We’ve had Aaliyah Lewis, Aliyyah Handford, both Defensive Player of the Year in this league, and our feeling is she could be one of those players.”

“She’s the tip of the sword in many ways on the defensive end, and as the attacker on offense. Her ability all over the floor to do things, we don’t have that on our team. She brings that. She should be a double-double kid, she should be an all-Big East player. That’s the ability we feel she has. If we’re going to be successful, she’s going to be a big reason why we are.”

St. John’s will not be just a two-person team, either. Unique Drake and Camree Clegg’s growth at the point guard spot have given Tartamella optimism as he looks to raise the Red Storm’s transition game, with twins Emma and Sophia Nolan helping space the floor while also aiding Rayven Peeples down low. Incoming transfers Danielle Cosgrove and Danielle Patterson, from Notre Dame and Indiana, respectively, bring with them a winning culture and overlooked skill set at higher levels that their new coach is certain will translate as the two return to their home state. 

“We’ve always talked about being a transition team,” Tartamella said. “I just think the uptempo piece, and the pace and space that we can play with is going to be exciting for our players. People that watch us will see a little different twist to what we’ve been doing, and then continuing to build on the foundation of what we’ve always been, trying to be a good defensive team. That part of us, and that part of me as a coach, I’ve had to transition a little bit over time to be okay with maybe giving up a little bit more. But we’re still going to be aggressive. I love our mentality, and we’re going to be in a good spot to feel good about where we are toward the end of the year.”

“It’s more than just their presence. It’s what they bring, the stories that they have from the places they were at, and I think just the level and the standard that they bring. Dani Patterson and Danielle Cosgrove understand what it means to have to be able to win and what you need to do, but they also bring us a skill set that’s allowing us to play the way we want to play, with our pace and space. DC can really flick it, as we all know, and Dani Patterson is kind of a Swiss Army knife. So we have a lot more ability to move people around, and I’m excited for them because they've been looking for an opportunity to show people what they can do at this level, and we know they’re going to show people what they can do here.”

All in all, St. John’s has the experience most other teams in the nation do as the COVID year has afforded increased roster depth on all fronts, but the X-factor for the Red Storm could very well be its evolution from trial by fire to contender, which will be tested early with a strong non-conference slate that will only provide yet another vantage point to observe by season’s end.

“We’ve gotta compete,” Tartamella stated. “And honestly, I expect us to win every game no matter what year it is. When people look at records and what you did, it doesn’t tell the whole story when you look at who you played. A lot of people didn’t play people in our own league. We try to challenge ourselves with different styles of play that will help us prepare for the league.”

“We’ve had to evolve. We’ve had all these things happen in the world, within our league, the league restructures with different types of teams, different types of coaches. The one thing I’ve always been blessed by, I think, is that I’ve been in a league where there a lot of gifted coaches that you can learn from, that you have access to. I want to say I’m a better listener than I was back then, which I think I am, and I’m also open to looking through different lenses more than I was. That’s a part of this year that’ll be different. We’re looking through a couple different lenses than we have before, so I’m excited about that.”

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