Chris Mullin just wants to drive home with a smile.
It’s something the St. John’s legend longs for as he braces for his second go-around as head coach. But despite his team’s 50-point blowout over Baruch College on Monday night, it’ll take a few more Red Storm victories, or at least ones that count, before he shows those pearly-whites.
In the first and only tune-up of the season, the men’s basketball program demolished the Division III Bearcats 99-49 in an exhibition game at Carnesecca Arena.
But all that glitters is not gold.
Over the first three-plus minutes of the game, St. John’s failed to score a bucket. It took eight minutes to tie the game. New faces in red and white took the floor without much collegiate action, and it showed.
“You could see it as soon as the game started,” Mullins said. “A lot of these guys are inexperienced, so we have a long way to go.”
The Red Storm won just eight of their 32 games last season, fighting inexperience while learning the philosophy of a new coaching staff. Top scorers Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika, who averaged 20.5 points combined, are both gone. Federico Mussini, whose 2015-16 slate ranked him the second-best scorer on the team with 10.7 points per game, returns as a sophomore. The offensive thirst proved itself in the opening minutes.
But as Mullin knows, patience, and the right players, can make all of the difference. Four of his five starters made their first appearance for St. John’s including four-star high school prospect Shamorie Ponds and three transfers.
“[For] a lot of these guys that was their first game,” Mullin said. “I kind of anticipated them being anxious and having some nervous energy, which is good. But each and every time out it’s going to be a new experience.”
Playing in front of his family, Bronx native Bashir Ahmed, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College, ended the scoreless drought three minutes and 50 seconds into the game. After slashing to the basket to draw contact, the second-ranked JUCO transfer in the nation sank two free throws.
“It felt amazing to get a chance to play in front of my family in my first game,” Ahmed said. “The fans were great so I was just happy to be out there.”
Two free throws to break a scoreless drought erupted into quite a final total for Ahmed. Doing the majority of his damage inside the paint, the athletic 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward cashed in for 19 points on 7-of-11 from the floor. The NJCAA All-American opened up the can of worms that St. John’s had finally been waiting for.
And when the lid came off, it flew off.
After tying the score 12-12, the Red Storm outscored Baruch 38-14 into halftime, showing the crowd of 3,727 exactly what type of offensive makeup is in store.
Mussini glued the offensive show, hopping off the bench and providing and instant spark. The Italian slid out of a starting role, at least so far, to give way to Ponds and redshirt freshman guard Marcus LoVett. Despite not getting the starting nod, Mussini connected on three three-pointers and finished with a team-high 21 points.
The shooting guard gave way to a pair of youngsters with tremendous upside and potential. Ponds, rated No. 36 in the country out of high school, flashed some talent and panache with the basketball. Even though the Brooklyn native missed all five of his three-point attempts, he gobbled up five steals and ended up with a dozen points.
LoVett ran the show on offense. His team-high 29 minutes on the floor proved his presence impactful as he dished out five assists and collected 14 points.
The flashiness of the final box score highlights the depth of scoring that the Red Storm can produce. But it’s the kind of trial run expected against a Division III opponent.
That’s why Mullin is yet to produce a smile.
“Tonight was a nice workout,” he said. “But we all know the challenging schedule that we have.”
St. John’s opens the regular season Friday, November 11 at home against Bethune-Cookman.