DAYTON, Ohio — For starters, let’s clear up the significance of St. John’s having been the very last team invited to the NCAA Tournament. It is like the old question about what you should call whoever graduates last in his or her medical school class. You call that person “doctor.”
“The fact of the matter,” Chris Mullin said Tuesday on the eve of a bona fide March Madness game, “is it does not matter. It’s kind of quite factual.”
In other words, when you’re in, you’re in, even if the head of the tournament committee said you received the last of 68 spots, and even if you must play in the First Four, as the Red Storm and Arizona State will on Wednesday night.
“It’s a true new beginning. No. 1, No. 16, 12, there’s no advantage,” the St. John’s coach said.
In college basketball, what matters more than seeding numbers is a team’s name. And St. John’s always has been a big one. What matters this year and this week is that “St. John’s” means a something extra again. At the very least, the team has advanced out of the nostalgia bracket and into the active pool.
Just making it onto The Big Dance floor makes St. John’s more current than a cassette tape or a black-and-white snapshot. The hope in Queens is that young people will look up to the Red Storm the way their grandparents did. Maybe they will admire the likes of Mustapha Heron, who was raised in Connecticut during the Storm’s stormy years.
“I was a Kentucky fan growing up. I was Kentucky, then UConn,” Heron said Tuesday. “I didn’t know too much about St. John’s growing up. Does that answer your question?”
Having transferred from Auburn and made it to March Madness with Mullin’s alma mater, the Red Storm wing player said, “I love it, the coaching staff, my teammates. I love the university, the program, everything about it.”
It is a tricky path that St. John’s walks, having brought Mullin back to head the program and coach in front of his old coach, 94-year-old Lou Carnesecca, who comes to the home games. It is a matter of invoking the tradition without living in the past. The goal is to build new memories on top of the foundation.
The phrase “St. John’s” still packs an inspiring punch among basketball aficionados.
“You just remember how electric the Garden was in those matchups,” said Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s. “And it was on par with the Knicks at the time. It was going to Final Fours. Coach Carnesecca had so much charisma with how he coached. It was a fun team to watch, a very exciting brand of basketball.
“I was a big college basketball fan, a Big East fan,” Hurley said. “And I remember those matchups with Chris Mullin and Walter Berry and Mark Jackson, and they would be going against [Syracuse’s] Pearl Washington.”
The key is to energize someone who might look at those names (let alone Dick McGuire and Sonny Dove) as if they came from ancient Rome. The goal is to make today exciting enough to spark interest in revisiting yesterdays.
“I think these kids are very intelligent,” Mullin said. “They have access to all information, past, present and sometimes even in the future.”
Just being here, even in the de facto out-bracket, even as the 68th invitee of 68 teams, means something.
“The exposure is something you can’t find anywhere,” Mullin said. “People start saying, `Where’s St. John’s?’ and they watch kids play. They associate with some player, maybe they want to be the next Shamorie Ponds, the next Mustapha Heron, whatever, and this stage provides something that you can’t get anywhere else.”
It just feels right that St. John’s is in March Madness. It is good for the school, and for the Madness.