St. John’s appears to be on the verge of national relevance again.
The Red Storm haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015 and haven’t won a game there since 2000. But St. John’s lifted its record to 12-0 with Saturday night’s home victory over Sacred Heart and is one of only five remaining unbeaten teams in Division I.
The Red Storm stood less than a handful of spots outside the top 25, and with the right set of circumstances, St. John’s might be in line for a number when Monday’s AP poll is published. If not, coach Chris Mullin’s squad surely will have a crack at that if it wins its Big East opener next Saturday at Seton Hall.
Mullin, however, seems unbothered that the national recognition hasn’t arrived. After a win last week, the fourth-year coach said, “We really have our own set of expectations and goals that doesn’t really entail getting recognized for anything but trying to win the game that’s in front of us and keep on improving.
“The record is what it is. Everything else will fall in place when it falls in place, whenever that may be.”
The program is turning around, but maybe not in the way envisioned when Mullin was first introduced as coach in April 2015. A former NBA executive who hadn’t coached a game on any level, he envisioned building a St. John’s team that looked like the ones he played on: a squad of kids from the city and surrounding area. He even said, “If there is a good player in New York City, he needs to come to St. John’s.”
Mullin did get the next great player in New York when he inked current star Shamorie Ponds out of Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn. However, the rest of the program is a reflection of how college basketball has changed in recent years. St. John’s is deep and talented this season, helped by players who transferred from other schools.
Look at the rest of the starting five. Marvin Clark II transferred from Michigan State. Justin Simon transferred from Arizona. Mustapha Heron transferred from Auburn. LJ Figueroa is a Massachusetts kid who transferred from a junior college, Odessa (Texas) College. Quinnipiac transfer Mikey Dixon, South Carolina transfer Sedee Keita — expected back in January after a knee procedure — and freshman Greg Williams Jr. from Louisiana will be among the first off the bench.
Mullin brought assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, who was a team manager at St. John’s for three seasons, with him to his introductory news conference. A New York product like Mullin, Abdelmassih spent four seasons helping Fred Hoiberg turn his alma mater, Iowa State, into an annual NCAA Tournament participant by making it a favored destination for transfers.
Mullin’s team plays in his image — entering Saturday, it was shooting 48.3 percent from the floor and 39.4 percent on three-pointers, with more than half of the baskets coming on an assist — and Abdelmassih helped bring in that talent.
“Matt’s been doing a great job for us,” Mullin said at the team’s October media day. “He’s a big part of what we’re doing.”
When Mullin played at St. John’s, Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca used to joke that his recruiting budget required only a pocketful of subway tokens. Under Mullin, the Red Storm have adapted to one of the modern ways of doing things in college basketball. Kentucky, Gonzaga, Nevada and Kansas all have transfers helping them thrive.
The step that St. John’s appears to have taken now is that it has talent and depth. Last season’s team appeared to have the talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament but was too thin. When second-leading scorer Marcus LoVett Jr. was lost to a knee injury early in the season, the Red Storm lost their first 11 conference games as they tried to figure out how to win without him.
Ponds is the centerpiece, as he was last season, but he doesn’t have to carry this team. All five starters were averaging at least 9.2 points going into Saturday. Dixon came off the bench in Wednesday’s 34-point win over St. Francis (Brooklyn) and tied for the team high with 13 points.
The defense has been inconsistent, especially on the three-point line — “We’ve played good defense in spurts,” Mullin said Wednesday — but opposing shooting percentages had gone down three straight games entering play Saturday.
St. John’s hasn’t played a challenging schedule so far. Its Kenpom.com SOS rating was 340th out of 353, which is likely the reason the Storm remain unranked. All that lies ahead in the regular season are 18 conference games and a contest at Duke. That’s plenty of opportunity to become relevant again.