By Joseph Staszewski
Chris Mullin considers himself and St. John’s underdogs as the first year coach and his new roster prepare to get their first taste of big-time college basketball at the Maui Invitational this November.
“These are teams and coaches I have watched scouting for my NBA teams for 10 to 15 years,” the rookie head coach said of the opponents the Red Storm will face. “They are all accomplished, some have NBA ties.”
St. John’s plays Vanderbilt on Nov. 23 at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2 in its opening game of the program’s first appearance in one of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments. The field also includes Indiana, UCLA, Kansas, Wake Forest, UNLV and host Chaminade. St. John’s takes on the winner of the Wake Forest-Indiana game in its second contest.
“For us, being a young team, it is going to be a huge challenge,” Mullin said. “I always felt like, even as a kid, the better competition you play, it makes you raise your level.”
He thinks that throwing his team, which does not return a starter and has just three letter winners from last season’s NCAA tournament squad, into a tournament like the Maui Invitational will be of great benefit to them. It will increase everyone’s focus early. Mullin knows they have to be ready for the challenge and the spotlight of the national stage that comes with playing in Maui.
The Vanderbilt team that St. John’s will play is coming off a 21-14 season, with a 9-9 mark in the SEC. The Commodores’ year ended in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
“If we were having a practice, [Coach Lou Carnesecca] would say, ‘Listen, man, you guys in about a week are going to be in Macy’s window, meaning Madison Square Garden. If you don’t prepare yourself, you are going to get embarrassed.’” Mullin said. “When you play on the big stage, whether it be Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center or Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, you have to prepare.”
Mullin and his staff have assembled a quality recruiting class and roster. He has already signed four-star guard Marcus LoVett Jr., top-100 guard Malik Ellison and Italian guard Federico Mussini. Forward Darien Williams transferred in from Iowa Western Community College and Ron Mvouika is a graduate transfer from Missouri State. He is impressed so far with the dedication he’s seen from the players who have been on campus.
“I’m really impressed with their intensity and their improvement,” he said. “We have done a lot of conditioning. That puts a lot of stress on them, commitment and discipline. I have been really impressed with all of the guys.”
It is part of what has ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg impressed with the tone Mullin has set in the early gone at St. John’s.
“The culture starts with the work ethic and the commitment to team,” Greenber says. “You listen to Chris, who probably has as good a work ethic as any player who ever played. His approach was second to none. I think that is what he is trying to establish.”