(Mike Lawrence – Sportsday Wire)
When St. John’s brought back Chris Mullin to coach his alma mater, there was a lot of celebration and excitement around the program.
The reality has been far more difficult than could have been imagined, as the Red Storm are now winless in their first nine games in Big East Conference play after a 68-53 loss to Villanova the 6th-ranked team in the nation (18-3, 10-1 in Big East play).
St. John’s last won on December 14 against Syracuse that improved their record to 7-3 in their non-conference schedule. They followed that up five days later with a shocking loss to Incarnate Word, which has started this 12-game losing streak.
Mullin said of handling the recent struggles, “I understand the process of being successful and building. I want to win every single game, but I also know if you want to win you have to pay the price. It’s not a short term fix and it’s not supposed to be easy. When this thing turns around it will be much sweeter. And it will, I know it will.”
The thing that stood out about that quote was “to win you have to pay the price,” as if this is the ultimate learning experience for his young team, made up of five freshman. This could be a motivating tool in the future for Mullin, in the sense that he will tell his team they never want to feel this pain again.
Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said of Mullin’s first year, “I just talked to Chris about it, but I’m amazed at how he is handling this. I don’t know if there’s any team in the country where a coach has come in with only two or three guys returning to the team and you have guys you recruited late. I don’t know if there’s a Division I team in this situation. His ability to get them to play hard every night and never quit is amazing. It’s really difficult to do with young people and he’s done a great job and kept a great perspective. I think it shows everybody that players are going to want to come to St. John’s and these guys are going to be good. If you can handle this, you can handle anything. He’s a Hall of Famer, and he’s sitting out there and you can see there is no ego, he’s sticking with his kids, his kids stick together and never quit and they play hard for him. It’s really impressive from the point of view as a coach and all of the [BIG EAST coaches] are looking at it that way.”
On Sunday, St. John’s got off to a decent start, but was not able to open up a lead as they missed a couple of layups and other shots within five feet of the basket. The Red Storm jumped out to a 6-0 lead that was followed by a 7-0 Villanova run.
The rest of the first half played out that way, and Villanova led 28-27 at the half despire shooting just 23 percent from the field, to 7-for-30. St. John’s was not much better, shooting 32 percent, or 10-for-31, from the field.
Villanova dominated the second half, with a quick 9-3 run that ballooned into a 16-point lead, 50-34, at the 12:14 mark on a Ryan Arcidiacono three-pointer. The Wildcats maintained a ten-to-15 point edge the rest of the way, as St. John’s could not put up a fight against Villanova’s press and committed 11 turnovers in the second half, 21 for the game.
In an odd way, this played out exactly the same way for former Head Coach Steve Lavin and his seniors against Villanova last season. On January 3, 2015, the Red Storm led 35-34 at the half and Villanova outscored them 56-37 in the second half to get the 90-72 win.
Mullin said of the game, “I thought our defensive effort was really good, especially in the half court. We made it tough for them, but we didn’t capitalize. We had a hard time putting the ball in the basket. The rebounds hurt us a lot and they were a big factor. Rebounds, turnovers and free throws were pretty much the game.”
On the team’s demeanor after another loss, Mullin said, “Right after the game, yeah, everyone’s down. Tomorrow we’ll look at this game, try to correct some things and move on to Xavier. That approach hasn’t varied. Learning the process is tough, but when you take it day by day it’s doable. We’re looking forward.”
Graduate Student Guard/Forward Ron Mvouika was a bright spot for St. John’s, as he had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Mvouika said of the team’s effort, “Villanova is a great team, so you have to give them credit. We had a run of empty possessions for eight minutes where we kept giving the ball away. A team like Villanova will make us pay for that. I thought we played great defense, but we had that lapse that cost us.”
On the mindset of the team, Mvouika said, “We knew from the beginning it was going to be difficult. But we are fighters. We can get knocked down 20 times; we are still going to get up the 21st time. We won’t let that loss take us down. As a fifth-year senior, I can tell you I’m going to make sure the rest of the guys are ready to go. It’s all about staying together, having positive energy and keeping faith. We are going to break through. When we lock in and play great together, we can play against anybody. We just have to find a way to finish games and close out games. We can’t play for only 30 minutes or 25 minutes, we have to play for 40. Those eight minutes today killed us. It’s a learning process and we will break through at some point.”
St. John’s Red Shirt Junior Forward Christian Jones. finished with 10 points (5-7 FG) and four rebounds off the bench.
Jones said of the Red Storm’s thoughts going into halftime, “We knew that we played well in the first half. But it’s all about being consistent and bringing that into the second half. That’s what we needed to carry over into the second half.”
On the losing streak, Jones said, “It’s tough, but everybody goes through adversity. Our team is going through that and needs to find a way to break through it.”
On the positives from this game, “I think if we continue to bring that effort we will break through and get our win.”
The St. John’s schedule does not ease up, as the Big East is strong this year. They hit the road for Xavier (19-2, 10-1 Big East) on Wednesday, followed by hosting Butler (14-7, 3-6 Big East) at Carnesecca Arena on the 6th, and then Georgetown (13-9, 6-3 Big East) on the 8th and Villanova on the 13th on the road.
They then play DePaul (7-14, 1-8 Big East) twice, at Carnesecca Arena on the 17th and on the road on the 25th, with a game against Seton Hall (15-6, 5-4 Big East) at The Garden in between.