The cupboard nearly was bare when Chris Mullin returned to St. John's in April to run the beloved basketball program that spawned his Hall of Fame career. The only returning regulars were point guard Rysheed Jordan and center Chris Obekpa, but within a couple of months, they chose to leave school rather than adapt to the replacement for former coach Steve Lavin.
So, Mullin is starting over with a team that includes nine new recruits and three lightly-used holdovers, which explains why the Red Storm finished dead last in the 10-team preseason poll released Wednesday during Big East media day festivities at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm anticipating some bumps," Mullin said with a smile. "With nine new guys, it is what it is."
It's a good thing Mullin has a deep store of working capital as a favorite son of the fan base because the loss of talents like Jordan and Obekpa is the sort of thing that would have ended the honeymoon quickly for any other coach.
But in this case, it signaled a shift in tone from the previous regime. Holdover Felix Balamou, who is close friends with Obekpa and attended Our Savior New American in Centereach with him, put the difference very succinctly.
"I will give you one word: discipline," Balamou said. "There's more discipline. Do what you're supposed to do; go to class; be on time; work hard, and show up. That's it."
The new coach made it clear that he did not come in with the intention of cleaning house or running anyone out of the program.
"That's how it materialized, so, that's what we're going to do," Mullin said. "If it went the other way, we would have adapted to that. I don't think it will have a huge effect on what I did yesterday or what I'm going to do today or tomorrow."
Mullin's straightforward principles were the foundation of his success under former coach Lou Carnesecca, and he intends to pass them on. Explaining the departure of Jordan and Obekpa, Mullin said, "I don't really have a lot of rules, but the ones we have, we stick to. The decisions were really made by them. I wish them luck. They're good kids. But they decided to move on.
"Fundamentally, if you show up, be on time, play hard, play with each other, I'll pretty much work with anybody. I don't think it's asking too much. It's the basis of success to me. Not just in basketball. It's common courtesy and respect, discipline and hard work."
The excitement surrounding Mullin's hiring might ebb dramatically if the Red Storm struggles. Asked what St. John's fans might expect from his team, Mullin said, "I'm hoping we play together unselfishly, play really, really hard and play for each other. If we do that and we're physically fit and composed, this year, we'll deal with the results.
"As we move forward, there will be a time for expectations. But we have to establish a work ethic and discipline."
Sounds like a logical starting point.
As for the Big East poll, graduate student transfer Ron Mvouika said, "That's the last thing I'm worried about. It was expected. We've got a brand-new coaching staff and a team that was put together in three months. I could care less where they put us -- first, fifth, one-hundredth.
"We're the first team that Coach Mullin ever had as a coach, so, that's exciting. Everybody is working every day on what you can control. The result will take care of itself."
Notes & quotes: Coach Joe Tartamella’s women’s team was voted second in the Big East preseason poll behind favored DePaul, guard Aliyyah Handford, who led the league last season with a 19.3 scoring average, was named preseason player of the year, and guard Danaejah Grant (17.1 points) also was a unanimous all-Big East selection.
The Big East men’s basketball preseason coaches’ poll, including first-place votes in parentheses and points:
1. Villanova (9), 81
2. Georgetown (1), 70
3. Butler, 67
4. Xavier, 55
5. Providence, 45
6. Marquette, 44
7. Seton Hall, 27
8. DePaul, 25
9. Creighton, 23
10. St. John’s, 13
Providence PG Kris Dunn was named preseason player of the year, and Villanova guard Jalen Brunson was named preseason rookie of the year. St. John’s placed no one on the preseason all-conference teams.
The Big East women's basketball preseason coaches' poll, including first-place votes in parentheses and points:
1. DePaul (8), 80
2. St. John's (1), 66
3. Villanova (1), 64
4. Creighton, 57
5. Seton Hall, 55
6. Xavier, 37
7. Georgetown, 34
8. Butler, 28
9. Marquette, 15
10. Providence, 14.
St. John's G Aliyyah Hanford was named preseason player of the year, and G Danaejah Grant was a unanimous all-conference selection. Butler F Brittany Ward was named freshman of the year.