Mike Anderson was introduced as St. John’s new basketball coach at a Madison Square Garden news conference Friday. And while the search that installed him as Chris Mullin’s replacement lasted a week and a half, disquieting Red Storm fans, there was something about the scene that should have a soothing effect.
Standing behind him for much of the introduction were three players — Mustapha Heron, LJ Figueroa and Eli Wright — who could make up a solid core next season. Near the back of the room, to show their support, were important figures in the New York basketball community: Christ the King’s Joe Arbitello and Stepinac’s Pat Massaroni — coaches of the last two Catholic city champions — and Andy Borman, who heads the AAU powerhouse New York Rens.
“I really, really feel in my heart that this group right here, with this core of players and hopefully adding some players, you’re going to see St. John’s basketball [take off] fast,” Anderson said, gesturing to the trio of players. “I want them to be a part of what we’re doing. I think it’s a big, big statement for those guys to be here . . . I want to be their coach.”
Heron, the Storm’s second-leading scorer this past season, and Figueroa, the third-leading scorer and top rebounder, said they are undecided about returning. Figueroa has placed his name in the transfer portal and is being sought by a slew of top programs. Wright, who transferred to St. John's before last season, is committed to returning.
Anderson has a career record of 369-200 in 17 seasons at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas and took each program to three NCAA Tournaments. The Razorbacks let him go in the final week of March at the end of an 18-16 season that concluded in the NIT. Before that, he was the longtime assistant to Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson, who developed the so-called “40 Minutes of Hell” defense and led Arkansas to the 1994 national title. Anderson has continued to champion that defensive style and vowed it will continue at St. John’s, saying, “We will pick them up when they get off the bus.”
St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg said he was seeking a “representative of St. John’s: a hard-working, blue-collar, get-it-done leader,” and believes he has found that in Anderson.
The union of St. John’s and Anderson came at the end of a whirlwind courtship, with Cragg first calling him Wednesday and the two agreeing to terms Thursday night at the offices of a Long Island law firm. Anderson said Friday that he still hadn’t seen Carnesecca Arena or the rest of the facilities.
Cragg, who came to St. John’s in October after three decades at Duke, found him on the advice of members of that university’s family. Pitt coach Jeff Capel, a former Duke player and assistant coach, suggested considering Anderson in a phone conversation. Then Cragg called Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He said, ‘Wow. If you could get him, that would be amazing,’ ’’ Cragg said.
As Cragg introduced Anderson at the Garden, he said, “I found the right guy . . . We are going to win championships.”
Said Anderson: “I’m ready to get to work.”
Anderson explained that ideally he wants to get the top talent from the area and is expected to build a coaching staff to do that. He mentioned members of his Razorbacks staff — T.J. Cleveland and Melvin Watkins — but suggested he wants New Yorkers, too. Borman is in the mix for a post, according to reports.
Anderson described another planned change from the previous administration’s tack when he said, “I love competitive schedules that prepare you [for conference play]. I want my guys tested.”
Heron played against Anderson’s Arkansas teams in the SEC during his two seasons at Auburn and was impressed by him. “He’s a great coach,” he said. “I’ve competed against him, played against him, see the way he handles his teams and the way his teams get better throughout the season. I know his record as coach — it speaks for itself.”