VILLANOVA, PA— No matter what the gaudy record and the national rankings may say after three-straight losing seasons, don’t tell Chris Mullin that St. John’s has become an overnight sensation this year. He, more than any of the players who’ve helped the Red Storm finally see the light after climbing their way up from the bottom, knows better.
“It hasn’t really been a jump,” said Mullin, after the Johnnies had Villanova, the two-time national champion and perennial Big East power down most of the night, but couldn’t take them out, as the Wildcats rallied for a 76-71 win Tuesday. “Maybe for you, it has been, but for us, it’s been a slow crawl.
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“Like a noose around our neck. It’s been a slow progression.”
Yet steadily on the rise, since starting off 8-24 in Mullin’s first season, before improving to 14-19 and 16-17 over the following two years. That adds up to 38-60, which might have put some coaches out on the street.
None of them have Mullin’s St, John’s pedigree, which is why folks may finally now be paying attention to the 14-2 team from Jamaica, Queens for the first time since Lou Carnesecca put his sweater away after Mullin, Bill Wennington and Mark Jackson left.
Even following a loss in which they Red Stormed their way out to quick 14-2 and 20-7 leads and were still up 59-51 midway through the second half, Mullin’s players say they’re legit.
“We got off to a great start and let it slip away,” guard Shamorie Ponds, St. Johns' best player said.
He scored 23 points and handed out six assists, but shot just 2-for-9 in the second half.
“There were a lot of mistakes down the stretch. That can’t happen on the road," he continued. “They’re past champions, but this is anybody’s league right now.”
Mullin’s not quite so sure.
With four of Villanova’s players going right from holding the National Championship Trophy to the NBA, this was supposed to be the year the rest of the Big East caught up to the Wildcats.
Yet somehow, Jay Wright has got them at 3-0 in conference play, alone at the top, knowing how to win games like this when they’re on the ropes.
“They’ve won two of the last three championships,” said Mullin on a night when Villanova honored members of its 1985 Championship team, a year in which Mullin’s St. John’s team also made it to the Final Four. “The way they play and the way they win, they just have a championship pedigree,
“No question this is the team to beat in the league, for sure.”
But the Red Storm have certainly come a long way, now ranked (No. 24) for the first time since 2014. While it may seem like eons coming to Mullin, his players trace the turnaround to more recent events.
“When we met this summer we knew what our goals were,” said leading scorer Ponds, the 6-foot-1 junior from Brooklyn, averaging 20.6points and 6.0 assists per game. “We’re together. I feel like this is a family. Even through losses like this, we don’t branch apart. Last year was different. But this team’s together.
Brothers, now enjoying life after going through the bad times.
“I think it’s having leadership, having players who have been here and the coach having some years under his belt,” explained senior forward Marvin Clark, who scored eight. “Just having a cohesive unit.
“Through all the summer workouts we’ve been through, all the adversity, regardless of what happens we remain close and tight-knit. I would definitely say this is the closest team since I’ve been here.
They’re also talented, with plenty of shooters, much like the teams Mullin played on throughout his Hall of Fame NBA career. But they were done in here by failure to do the little things like boxing out on the defensive boards, late
turnovers and a couple rushed shots, as Villanova went on a late 10-0 run to seize a 72-67 lead with 1:04 left, then put it away at the line.
“We were kind of sloppy,” said Ponds. “I feel like they took the lead and we were supposed to take the lead right back.
We just didn’t execute.
“Having two losses isn’t bad, but we feel we should be 16-0. “
Considering where they were, though, Mullin will take it, as the Red Storm turn the page and look ahead to DePaul Saturday, followed by Creighton. “The game is over. It’s time to move on,” he said simply, afterward. “We’re good.”
Best of all, after the slow crawl back, the long progression, St John’s fans can finally believe him.