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Chris Mullin touts progress, but work to be done

St. John's head coach Chris Mullin reacts during

St. John's head coach Chris Mullin reacts during the first half against Arizona State in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at UD Arena on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Joe Robbins

Since taking over the St. John’s program in April 2015, coach Chris Mullin has preached consistency above all else.

There were other things he wanted — a style of play, a level of fitness, attractiveness to New York recruits — but the approach would be the cornerstone of success.

Mullin envisioned players who had great work habits and dedication and who played every opponent, formidable or weak, exactly the same.

Well, the 2018-19 Red Storm were many things, but consistent was not one of them.

The 21-13 record was their best under Mullin, they got back into the Top 25 at one point and they reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Mullin took over, but for every accomplishment, there was a “but.”

St. John’s finished under .500 in the Big East for a fourth straight season, lasted a week in the rankings after an embarrassing home loss to DePaul and followed a win over nationally ranked Villanova on Feb. 17 by going 2-6 the rest of the way.

Mullin called the 74-65 First Four loss to Arizona State in Dayton on Wednesday “one of our worst games of the season overall.” St. John’s selection for the 68th and final spot in the NCAA field was highly scrutinized, and it answered the doubters by confirming their suspicions.

Shamorie Ponds was asked about the late-season collapse and gave an answer representative of others his teammates gave: “I don’t have no answer to it. I can’t really hit it on the head. But it happens.”

“It was a really fun team to coach,” Mullin said. “It wasn’t the most consistent, but they were really, really good guys to coach. I really appreciate their work ethic and the way they showed up each day, whether we had a really bad loss or a good win.”

Despite the most talented and experienced roster of players in Mullin’s four seasons, St. John’s did not make a quantum leap, and that left players with mixed emotions. Junior Mustapha Heron said Wednesday, “This leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but we made it to the tournament, which is good.”

The play of LJ Figueroa may have been the biggest revelation. The sophomore transfer was third on the team in scoring with a 14.4-point average, first in rebounding at 6.4 per game and second in steals with 61. With junior Justin Simon, the Big East defensive player of the year, coming back and second-leading scorer Heron possibly returning — he hasn’t committed to it — St. John’s appears to have the core of a team that can get back to the NCAA Tournament, even with Ponds likely headed for the NBA.

Freshmen Greg Williams Jr. and Josh Roberts showed they can play in the Big East. Several potentially impactful transfers will become eligible next season: 6-5 Eli Wright from Mississippi State and Ian Steere from North Carolina State have been sitting out per NCAA transfer rules and 6-3 Cameron Mack committed from junior college.

Mullin wasn’t ready to assess the season in the minutes after Wednesday night’s loss, but it was clear he felt the team should feel accomplishment in progress. “These guys, as days go by, they’ll appreciate what they did here,” he said, “and they should be proud of themselves.”

FIVE QUESTIONS

FACING ST. JOHN’S

Here are a handful of offseason questions the Red Storm will encounter:

1. Is Shamorie Ponds declaring for the NBA Draft?

This seems highly likely. Ponds explored entering the draft last spring, working out for NBA teams and receiving feedback, before returning for his junior season with a goal of improving himself as a playmaker. He accomplished that: His assists ticked up slightly and he cut his turnovers by about 30 percent. He currently projects to be selected at the bottom of the first round or the second round. When Ponds was asked after Wednesday’s loss if he will consider another return, he replied, “No comment.”

2. Will Mustapha Heron return?

It’s possible. Like Ponds, Heron explored entering the NBA after leading Auburn in scoring and to the NCAA Tournament last season, but he opted to return for his junior year and transfer to St. John’s. His scoring fell from a 16.4-point average to 14.6, but the 6-5 Heron often had to play both forward positions for an undersized Storm squad. Not currently projected to be picked, Heron was asked after Wednesday’s loss if he could envision a return and answered, “Of course I can.”

3. Where does Chris Mullin stand?

Mullin has two seasons left on his original contract and said Wednesday that he plans to return. Many schools have traditionally extended coaches in his position so high school recruits feel security. Athletic director Mike Cragg said, “I don’t think it’s necessary in this era with the college culture so fluid,” but he added that he and Mullin will evaluate what the program needs in the coming days.

4. Could there be changes to the coaching staff?

This one is hard to call because of the coaching rumor mill. Assistant Matt Abdelmassih handles most recruiting. His specialty has been attracting transfers, something he first did under Fred Hoiberg at Iowa and excels at with St. John’s. Nebraska reportedly is in hot pursuit of Hoiberg and he could seek a reunion. Given that Mullin felt the Storm probably had the talent to win more this season, he could seek to add an experienced in-game tactician regardless.

5. How will Cragg innovate?

Cragg was hired in October and has a mind to expand the program’s relationship with the Garden. As Newsday first reported, he already is seeking to play many more Big East home games there and is exploring matches for a national-profile non-conference game in the building. He wants a far more challenging non-conference schedule for next season and is involved. He also is expected to propose increased seating at Carnesecca Arena and major upgrades to the team’s training facilities, including new lighting that mimics that found at both of the Storm’s home courts.

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