Through the thunder of The Garden in the infancy of Big East Conference basketball emerged the St. John’s Red Storm, a team that attacked, pushed, and battled, but lost. Despite scratching and clawing to a failed result, the Johnnies played well enough to garner a new title: “one hell of a team.”
That moniker fired out of Villanova’s Head Coach Jay Wright’s mouth after his team’s 70-57 escape over Chris Mullin’s St. John’s program. The one issue for St. John’s fans lies in Wright’s prelude to “…hell of a team.”
It won’t be this season. This season is, and will be, about the coach’s first few words: “They’re going to be…”
That’s not an easy pill to swallow for New York fans, whose morning alarm sings to the tune of, “What have you done for me lately?”
But it’s the only pill that Chris Mullin and his staff have to swallow. In his second season, Mullin has taken care of the tough part: recruiting. Grabbing transfers like Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed, along with young phenom Shamorie Ponds, Mullin has swayed several to don the famous Red Storm uniform.
But college basketball is about veterans and experience.
That’s what the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats used to overcome a not-so-sexy 40 minutes. St. John’s held the lead for the first 14 minutes of the game defending extremely well. Kris Jenkins, known for his game-winning three-point shot over North Carolina in the 2016 National Championship, shot an abysmal 1-for-10 from the floor. Josh Hart, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, scored 11 instead of his usual 20 points.
In place of those household names in Philadelphia and the national scene, freshmen like Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall stepped up to score a combined 28 points off the bench. Consistency in Saturday’s game didn’t show for ‘Nova, but depth and good recruiting did.
“The toughest thing to do in athletics is to be consistent night in and night out,” Wright said. “We’ve got veteran guys and we’re struggling with it.”
St. John’s, who played as well as possible, proved to Wright and the 17,309 in attendance that it could hold serve with anybody in the nation, as reflected in postgame comments by Malik Ellison.
“We can play with anybody in the country,” he said. “But we’re a very good team too. We have a lot of young guys…the more experience we get, the better we’ll be.”
However, Mullin knows that he needs his team to grow up quickly.
“[We need] a consistent effort,” he said. “[We need] some freshman that turn to sophomores, some sophomores that turn to juniors, and some juniors that turn to seniors. But that’s something you don’t control.”
The Wildcats, like the Creighton Blue Jays before them, saw the tape of the Johnnies’ win over Syracuse and Butler. It showed that St. John’s could stick with, and stick it to, its top-ranked opponents.
“You’ve seen the Syracuse game, you’ve seen the Butler game,” Wright said. “You know what they’re capable of. So when you have young guys, you struggle with consistency. But you can see what their best is and they’re going to start getting more consistent than that.”
The difference between the “Beast of the East” and the up-and-coming Red Storm is experience. It’s consistency. It’s being able to duplicate the performances against Syracuse and Butler, and hopefully, against Villanova. The Wildcats, who started extremely slow-footed and uninspired, almost lost had it not been for the experience of winning ugly games.
“If you do [what we did] the next time we play [St. John’s], you probably get beat,” Wright said.
This Red Storm season is about winning the games St. John’s shouldn’t win and losing the games they shouldn’t lose. But along the way, in games like this, they’ll remember who they didn’t beat. And then they’ll return the favor.