St. John’s at standstill in rebuilding process

09 January 2016: St. John’s coach Chris Mullin yells out instructions to his team during an NCAA basketball game between the St. John's Red Storm and the Marquette Golden Eagles at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, WI. (Photo by Michael McLoone/Icon Sportswire)
Michael McLoone/Icon Sportswire

No one told Chris Mullin it would be easy when he became the head basketball coach of the St. John’s Red Storm.

Easy it hasn’t been for the former St. John’s and NBA legend who was venturing into coachingat any levelfor the very first time. After inheriting a program bereft of substantial talent prior to last season and then putting together a roster off the scrap heap, the Red Storm predictably struggled. They finished the season winning just one Big East game, while posting an overall record of 8-24.

Knowing that he was behind the eight ball from the start, Mullin did a tremendous job of recruiting high-caliber basketball talent, which was to put St. John’s in prime position to compete this season.

As they often do, the best laid plans go awry.

That said, we should not hit the panic button just yet.

A difficult schedule to start the season has done Mullin and his team no favors. While the Red Storm are just 2-4 on the season, all of their losses are respectable.

After promptly destroying Bethune-Cookman and Binghamton to start the season 2-0, the Red Storm took on an ambitious challenge.

First, St. John’s played at Minnesota in the Gavitt Games and delivered a competitive game on the road, only to lose by six points. No shame in that.

Then Mullin’s squad participated in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, which is always a loaded field. The Red Storm lost in succession to Michigan State, VCU and Old Dominion. Outside of a shoddy second half to Old Dominion (a team expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid), St. John’s was competitive in every game.

Being competitive is of no consolation to the Red Storm fan base, but the way in which the team has battled highlights the need for patience. This is still a very young club which is finding out what it is.

Its time is coming.

The Johnnies’ top three leading scorers are all in their first seasons playing competitive Division I basketball.

The backcourt of redshirt freshman Marcus LoVett and four-star freshman Shamorie Ponds has limitless potential.

If you are a St. John’s fan, you have to love this ultra-exciting duo.

LoVett, the more natural point guard of the two, has been a revelation. He is third in the conference in scoring with 19.8 points a game and fifth in the Big East in assists (4 apg), while also chipping in 4.5 rebounds per game. LoVett is simply a dazzling playmaker who does a great job of generating offense—for both himself and his teammates.

Ponds, the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year, has also been good as advertised. The combo guard is averaging 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Ponds can play both on and off the ball and gives Mullin a lot of versatility in the backcourt.

Junior Bashir Ahmed, a Juco transfer, is the third Red Storm in double figures, averaging 10.3 points to go along with 5.5 rebounds per game. Ahmed is an athletic wing who is still finding his footing, shooting just 35.1 percent from the floor.

Complementing LoVett, Ponds and Ahmed are a trio of sophomores: Federico Mussini, Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe. All showed some promise last season.

Mussini provides instant offense off the bench (7.2 points per game on 50 percent shooting from three-point range), while Sima (7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) and Yakwe (4.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and a Big East-leading 3.2 blocks per game) are more known for their defensive prowess.

As a young team in transition, it’s no surprise that the Red Storm rank last in the Big East in team field-goal percentage: only 40.9.

There are so many moving parts Mullin is working with, and that has naturally led to some instability. All but one player for St. John’s are either in their first or second season with the program. One can excuse the lack of cohesion early on—especially with the schedule the Johnnies have faced.

The schedule will lighten up Tuesday when St John’s plays Delaware State at home.

After that, a true litmus test awaits the Red Storm. A road game against Tulane on Friday will tell us a lot about the program and where it is heading.

By no means is Tulane a world beater at 1-5, but the Green Wave are coached by another NBA castoff, Mike Dunleavy, and they could potentially give the Red Storm some trouble. If Mullin can squeeze out a true road win, it could get the Johnnies back on the right path and likely even up their record.

Road wins reveal character. Although the game is not considered daunting, it is a contest that can build positive momentum.

09 MAR 2016: St. John's Red Storm guard Federico Mussini (4) during the first half of the Big East Tournament game between the Marquette Golden Eagles and the St. John's Red Storm played at Madison Square Garden in New York City,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

09 MAR 2016: St. John’s Red Storm guard Federico Mussini (4) during the first half of the Big East Tournament game between the Marquette Golden Eagles and the St. John’s Red Storm played at Madison Square Garden in New York City,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

We all knew what St. John’s was going to be prior to the start the season: young and volatile, yet showing promise while learning on the go.

This is not likely a team that will challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid, nor was it ever expected to, but the Red Storm were expected to improve steadily and contend for a winning record.

While the start to the 2016-17 season has not been ideal, there is plenty of time left to make inroads toward a competitive season.

If St. John’s has eight or nine wins heading into Big East play (St. John’s still has games against Fordham, Penn State and Syracuse in the non-conference portion of the schedule), the Johnnies should be on the right track. Anything less would be concerning.

Mullin knew what he was in for when he took the job, but he was also given time to turn the program around.

Time is what he needs most right now.

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