The surprising optimism generated by a 7-3 start that included an upset of Syracuse has given way to grim reality at St. John’s, where Chris Mullin and his staff are in the early stages of rebuilding the program from the ground up.
The Red Storm (7-8, 0-2 Big East) go into Wednesday night’s game at Carnesecca Arena against No. 10 Xavier (13-1, 1-1) riding a five-game losing streak.
The downturn began after the Dec. 13 win over Syracuse with equally shocking losses to Incarnate Word and NJIT before more predictable defeats against No. 22 South Carolina at a neutral site, Creighton and at No. 8 Providence. It might not be apparent to the naked eye, but Mullin remains encouraged by discernible signs of progress.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas,” he said before facing Xavier. “It hasn’t shown up in the win column, but we recognize the improvements. We let them know where the improvements have been, but to get the payoff, we need to have execution.
“We’re getting good shots. The last few games, we’re getting more shots than our opponent. Our turnovers are down, so now, the challenge is to stay positive so we can get in the win column.”
That’s easier said than done for a team that returned just three lightly used reserves from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Freshman point guard Federico Mussini, who leads the Red Storm with 12.7 points per game, continues to struggle against defensive pressure, but graduate transfer Durand Johnson, who is averaging 11.5 points is on the upswing with double-figures scoring in five of his past six games.
“I think we are right there,” Johnson said.
Speaking of the loss at Providence, he added, “We played hard and fought until the end. It was [an 18-point deficit], and at one time, we had cut it to six. We couldn’t seem to get over the hump. We are still building, and we are definitely still hungry and confident.
“We aren’t going to feel bad about ourselves and pack it in. We will continue to get better and keep improving.”
Last season, a veteran St. John’s team swept the Musketeers, but coach Chris Mack’s team is a year older and more experienced. Xavier opened with 12 straight wins before getting smashed in its Big East opener at Villanova. Guard Trevon Bluiett was averaging 14.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range to lead Xavier, and forwards James Farr (10.5 points, 8.6 rebounds) and Jalen Reynolds (10.1, 6.2) form a powerful inside combination.
Mullin said the coaching staff has been straightforward with the players in terms of evaluating their play and keeping a realistic attitude. “We stick to the facts,” Mullin said. “We show them tape. That’s part of this process. Be realistic and recognize where we are.”
In turn, the players have maintained their focus. “Our main thought is to put every game behind us,” junior forward Christian Jones said. “Playing Xavier, a top-10 team, we can’t look back and dwell on the past. That’s our message for the whole team.”