You crawl before you walk. You walk before you run. As it is in life, so it is in Chris Mullin’s rebuild of the St. John’s basketball program.
There was plenty of crawling in his first season, a historically bad 8-24 record and 1-17 mark in Big East play as Mullin went largely with players from his first recruiting class. Now the question is whether they can walk and, maybe, run in Year Two.
“Our returning players know what they went through. They don’t need motivation or goals,” Mullin said Tuesday at the conference media day at Madison Square Garden. “The guys coming in watched a lot of our games and the reason they came was to make a difference.
“When you’re building, the motivation is built in.”
The Red Storm got a little extra motivation Tuesday when the preseason poll of coaches was announced and they were tabbed eighth. Defending national champion Villanova was the unanimous choice to finish first.
The Red Storm is adding several new and promising pieces including headliner Shamorie Ponds, a guard from Jefferson High in Brooklyn was anointed Preseason Freshman of the Year in the poll. Another is guard Marcus LoVett, who was the headliner of last year’s class but sat out as a partial qualifier. A third is 6-7 junior forward Bashir Ahmed of the Bronx, a two-time junior college All-America pick.
They are part of a group that joins sophomores Federico Mussini, Kassoum Yakwe, Yankuba Sima and Malik Ellison — a quartet who proved talented enough to compete at the Big East level.
“We worked hard over the summer and the new guys are real ly good, so I think it’s going to be a good year for us,” said Mussini, the top returning scorer after averaging 10.7 points. “[Last season] was really helpful even though we didn’t do real ly good. We were a lot of freshmen and we all got a lot of minutes. Starting sophomore year, we are more ready than other [sophomores] because we played a lot.”
Mullin said he played the freshmen a lot of minutes because it was what the program needed but admitted it came with plenty of headaches. The Storm averaged 15.3 turnovers and was outscored by an average of 9.3 points.
“I packed a lot of Aleve for my headaches,” Mullin said. “I plan on packing less this year.”
Ponds averaged 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists in his senior season and picked St. John’s over Providence, Creighton and a host of others. He should be in the running for the starting five. Both Mussini and Yakwe used the word “smart” in describing his game.
“He’s got a natural instinct for the game,” Mullin said. “He stays within himself and can play with any number of guys . . . He’s flexible and knows how to fit in no matter what group he plays with . . . He’s pretty gifted.”
Yakwe and Sima finished first and second in the conference for blocked shots but Yakwe sees the Storm as being much more physical on the front line with the addition of Ahmed because “he attacks the rim on every play.”
St. John’s has an exhibition game with Baruch on Halloween night and opens at home against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 11. A week later, the real challenges start with a game at Minnesota before a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas and a first-round game against Michigan State.