DAYTON, Ohio. – Maybe the third time actually will be the charm for St. John’s. Chris Mullin thinks it might just be after seeing the emotion from his Red Storm when it landed the last spot in the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament.
“The emotion was great. I love it,” Mullin said. “That’s what we need.”
This St. John’s roster is the most-gifted and experienced in Mullin’s four seasons and the Red Storm rode into the season with high expectations for again becoming nationally relevant. Instead there was mediocrity.
The regular season started well enough, but the Red Storm ended up underperforming as they tumbled over the final month from Big East contender to seventh place of 10. Then there was the conference tournament, where the Storm underperformed again. The big accomplishment there was beating a last-place DePaul squad that it somehow twice lost to; in a quarterfinal, the Storm met a Marquette team it had beaten twice and suffered its largest loss of the season.
St. John’s (21-12) got a third shot to shine on Sunday. The Red Storm play in the First Four at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday against Arizona State (22-12) at University of Dayton Arena for the No. 11 seed in the West Regional to earn a matchup against No. 6 Buffalo Friday in Tulsa, Okla.
“It’s a different position to have to play a play-in game to be in the tournament, but it’s another opportunity and you’ve got to make the best of it,” Marvin Clark II said. “We put ourselves in the position we’re in so we can’t talk about if it’s a ‘letdown;’ it’s a new season and it needs a new season attitude. It’s an opportunity.”
“We finished seventh in the conference and we didn’t win a conference [championship] so I don’t think anyone was surprised by anything,” Mustapha Heron said. “I knew we would probably have the play-in game. . . . It makes you want to go out and play that much harder.”
And that is the rub with the Storm. Has it underachieved because it didn’t play hard enough through entire games as it lost five of its last seven games? Even Shamorie Ponds conceded that there were players “going through the motions” – including himself – as St. John’s staggered through the stretch.
Mullin thought he saw something different in his team after its name was among the last revealed in the selection show. And he believes it’s something that can be tapped.
“As a season, it’s up-and-down – you’re always trying to maintain a level of excitement or getting it back,” he said. “This could be legit, not just talk, but it’s there.”
St. John’s generally performed best for the high-profile games in this season of inconsistency. It was very good in the regular-season games against Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall – which all made the tourney; it was unspectacular-to-bad in games where it was favored. That’s not a good trait – though the rest of the Storm’s games everything riding on them.
“We’re the type of team where a lot of variables don’t matter,” Mullin said. “The thing with us is our energy and our passion. If that’s in line, it shows up in our defense . . . and everything else seems to fall in place.
”That’s what’s got to carry us. . . . When we’ve done that, we’ve done well.”