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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

NCAA berth a start, but St. John's coach Chris Mullin still has a lot of work to do

Coach with outstanding resume as a player and time as an NBA executive has rekindled enthusiasm at his alma mater, but the alumni will want to see more.

St. John's head coach Chris Mullin looks on

St. John's head coach Chris Mullin looks on in the second half of a basketball game against California during the Legends Classic at Barclays Center on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

DAYTON, Ohio — Four years ago, give or take a week-and-a-half, Chris Mullin nearly brought down the house at Carnesecca Arena after having filled it. He starred in the most raucous coaching announcement we’ve ever seen and drew standing ovations with his words and his presence.

Enthusiasm for Red Storm basketball reached to the ceiling and caromed off the walls of the former Alumni Hall on April 1, 2015 as Mullin said it was “an obligation” to take the head coaching job at his alma mater and promised to have St. John’s “dominate New York.” What remains to be seen, especially after a quick and undistinguished exit from The Big Dance, is if he deserves a renewal on the goodwill.

Mullin steered the Storm into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his tenure, meeting up with Arizona State in the First Four here Wednesday night. The appearance was the kind of highlight the school envisioned at that 2015 offseason pep rally. But the 74-65 loss to a team that isn’t all that good will not do much to convince skeptics who are leery of the season’s 9-13 finish after a 12-0 start. They wonder if his stellar playing career and his chops as an NBA executive really can turn solid players into good pros — and attract more of them.

The next year or so will tell whether this year was just a start for Mullin, or if it was a sign that he can take the team only so far. The game Wednesday night didn’t make that any clearer.

For the record, there are no regrets from junior Shamorie Ponds, the type of New York standout Mullin vowed to recruit when he became the university’s 20th basketball coach. Ponds considered turning pro last year before deciding to return. After what might have been his final college game, he said, “No comment” when he was asked if he plans on entering the NBA draft this time.

Mullin said he will give direct information from his old friends in NBA front offices to Ponds about where he stands as a prospect. As for what happened to the team against Arizona State, the coach said, “I wouldn’t say I was stunned, a little bit just kind of surprised. Simple plays that I’ve seen guys make each and every day…I didn’t think yelling or kicking or screaming would do anything. It was just something we had to play through. So I felt kind of helpless in a way.”

A coach has to inspire donors, excite season-ticket holders, cajole the media, befriend AAU coaches and handle all the Xs and Os during games. The perception is that Mullin leaves much of the latter to assistant coach Greg St. Jean.

Maybe a good leader delegates details to a strong associate. Carnesecca downplayed strategy during the 1985 season, when he had a star-studded squad led by Mullin. He once told me, “I’ve always said my mother could have coached that team.”

The current coach’s players have his back, especially after having seen how he handled the recent death of his brother.

“For him to still want to be a part of this and want to be around us during that time means a lot and shows us how much he loves us and shows how much he loves this program,” Marvin Clark II said. “And to be able to help him get his school back into this position is dope.”

Alumni no doubt agree. But Mullin knows that by next March, it will have been 20 years since St. John’s last won a March Madness game. He will be judged on whether he can end the drought. For now, the best that can be said of his coaching legacy is that it hasn’t been written yet.

Enthusiasm for Red Storm basketball reached to the ceiling and caromed off the walls of the former Alumni Hall on April 1, 2015 as Mullin said it was “an obligation” to take the head coaching job at his alma mater and promised to have St. John’s “dominate New York.” What remains to be seen is what he must do now to get a renewal on the goodwill.

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