Last season, St. John's honored the 25th anniversary of its 1985 Final Four team, but coming as it did in the middle of a season when most believed coach Norm Roberts was on his way out after six years, it was a bit awkward. Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington were questioned as to their interest in returning to coach the Red Storm; former coach Lou Carnesecca was asked about recruiting problems and Mark Jackson didn't even show up for the simple reason it might appear he was campaigning for the job.
What a difference a year and new coach Steve Lavin have made. Mullin was on campus Thursday conducting player interviews for ESPN prior to Saturday's nationally televised game between St. John's (18-9, 10-5 Big East) and Villanova (21-7, 9-6) from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. After watching the school's basketball program flounder since its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2002, no one is happier for his alma mater than Mullin.
"This is like family to me," Mullin said. "Coach Carnesecca I've known since I was 12 years old. St. John's and coach Carnesecca are one and the same to me. That's where my memories always go to. He put his whole life into this university. So, I feel good for him.
"It needs to be good. It's good for St. John's, good for New York City, probably good for the Big East. There was steady progress, but they've taken it a step further this year, and it shows in the big wins they've had.
"In the past, they've competed but didn't get the final win. Now, beating teams like Duke and UConn and Pitt, that catapults you to another level. I feel good for all the kids, the seniors who went through some tough times here, stuck it out and now are reaping the benefits. I talked to a few of them and told them they need to enjoy it. I'm really proud of them; I'm happy for them."
One student journalist asked Mullin if there was anything about this team that reminded him about 1985. Of course, the young reporter wasn't born then, so, he couldn't know how dominant that 31-4 team was. It suffered a crazy early-season loss at Niagara, and the other three losses came in the four games it played against Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, including defeats in the Big East tourney final and the NCAA semifinals.
What a collection of talent St. John's had in long-time NBA big man Wennington, NBA all-star guard Jackson (who was a sophomore coming off the bench), junior college transfer Walter Berry, who won several national player of the year awards the following season, and of course, Mullin, the greatest player in school history who is up for the Hall of Fame. "What happens from here is all gravy," Mullin said of the nomination. "To be nominated and to be considered in itself means a lot."
Mullin deftly avoided comparing this team to 1985, saying he hadn't watched enough games. He mentioned how leading scorer Dwight Hardy reminds him of Boo Harvey, a star from 1988-90. Mullin described Hardy's game as "kind of a little herky-jerky, a typical city player and has the knack for making big shots. Very confident, not afraid of the moment.
"I think coach Lavin has done a great job of instilling confidence in them. These guys have actually gone out there and performed. It's good to see that maturation and that these guys have a good feeling about themselves and are finishing up their careers strong…To have this going on in their senior year is great. You feel good for them."
Mullin was impressed that the players he interviewed pointed to their early-season loss to Fordham as a turning point. He said a bad loss can drag a team down, "But it seems like coach Lavin used it as a teaching tool," Mullin said. "It is impressive. It's good for the city to have St. John's as a good team."
Then, with a knowing smile and a laugh, Mullin added, "As usual, when you do this, then, the pressure mounts."
Chris Mullin has been there, done that.