It's a week before Thanksgiving and the college basketball season is already heating up! Rutgers has a big game tomorrow against former Big East foe St. John's, as part of the inaugural Gavitt Games. Their first road game of the season is at Carnesecca Arena and a huge test for Eddie Jordan's squad. Those of you that are regular listeners to Dave White's Not Half Bad podcast know Norman Rose from the St. John's SB Nation site, Rumble In The Garden. I was fortunate enough to speak with Norman this week about the new direction of the program under former Red Storm star Chris Mullin. Both teams come into tomorrow night's showdown at 2-0 and have plenty to prove as young, developing teams. Here is what Norman had to say.
Chris Mullin, deity or just a man? In all seriousness, expectations are sky high for the greatest player in program history. What are his biggest obstacles long term in restoring the glory days at St. John's?
I met him once and I am pretty sure there was a halo. Look, I'm just saying.
Long-term, he's just a man, but a man with an extensive history around basketball. he was great as a player, decent as a General Manager on the NBA level. And now, while we like to think that coaching is magic, the real challenge for Mullin is recruiting and player development - along with creating the team's style and managing the personalities. It's bringing in good players, ones who can play the way Mullin plans for them to play.
Other than that, he's got a great set-up. The fans will let him fumble a little, the program will be able to fundraiser and he will hopefully be able to bring some stability - and maybe, just maybe, he'll be good enough to impart his sense of the game enough to make St. John's a winner.
In the short term, Mullin has led a full roster overhaul in the offseason. Now with the recent losses of Marcus LoVett, a partial qualifier, and junior Felix Balamou, declared ineligible due to a NCAA rule violation, what are the expectations for the team this season?
The same as they were before - bottom of the Big East and with hope for the future. This year has so many newcomers and LoVett's ability to get buckets wouldn't really change that. It would just make them more interesting...
Mullin has wisely made NYC a major priority in recruiting, even gathering a large group of top recruits and local coaches over the summer to share his vision. Will his NBA pedigree alone help secure more top recruits for the 2016 class, in addition to Shamorie Ponds, regardless of results this season? How long of a grace period or honeymoon does Mullin have before winning is the ultimate factor?
I don't think the NBA pedigree will do the trick alone. BUT I think that since the staff of St. John's includes a pair of strong recruiters in Barry Rohrssen and Matt Abdelmassih, the program will have a chance with some of the better prospects in the area. I think the Johnnies will get good talent in 2016, but I don't know about elite talent. The results need to be there before the top-15 prospects consider St. John's, unless that player is from New York City.
But in his third year, if the winning isn't there, the fans will get restless. It's been so long, though, that "winning" might just mean being in 4th place in the Big East... I will say that if the team tanks hard this year (like most predict they likely will), struggling to win Big East games, Mullin will have to fight the narrative that he's not a good coach... but coaching is also about players.
Is the style of play for this team indicative of the long term philosophy of Mullin, or more out of necessity based on the current roster? How do you think this team matches up with Rutgers?
I think Mullin is getting the team to play the way he wants to - a lot of passing, unselfishness, movement, effort. This is his long-term philosophy; I don't see a lot of stagnant isolation play in the future.
As far as the matchup? It's hard to say. St. John's has a number of versatile wings, but only one center, and only one point guard. Rutgers brings more attacking/ offensive height in DJ Foreman and Deshawn Freeman, but the Johnnies have a true center in Yankuba Sima who has been a strong shot-blocker and an eager rebounder. Can the Scarlet Knights apply full court pressure and force St. John's to make decisions? That's a question, too.
A key matchup in the game will be a battle of highly touted, freshman point guards with Federico Mussini playing against Corey Sanders. What are Mussini's strengths and how do you expect this match-up to play out? Is there any concern with Mussini handling fullcourt pressure from Rutgers?
A week or two ago I likened Federico Mussini to former Gonzaga point guard Dan Dickau. And it seems to hold - Mussini can score, using strong three-point shooting and some craftiness with the ball to get shots. He can pass, but can also make rash mistakes. (There was one game where he forced the ball, turned it over, fouled the ballhandler on the other end... and then came up the next possession and jacked a hasty early three-pointer. Kids these days.)
Sanders' quickness can give Mussini fits; the Italian point guard is... well, let's say he's learning defense from the ground up. Including instincts, quickness, how to use his hands, how to keep players in front of him...
But he's getting better every game.
Are St. John's fans excited for the Rutgers game and do you expect a sellout of Carnesecca Arena? Do St. John's fans consider Rutgers a rival at all, due to being former conference mates and local proximity of both schools?
The buzz level for this one is... minimal right now. The fans are a little excited about Maui but it seems like most are not as heated for this as they would be for Syracuse. Which is weird, it should be a local bragging rights thing.
What is your prediction for tomorrow's game?
Turnovers. 68-62 St. John's in a 70+ possession game filled with some sloppy, sloppy periods.
I wanted to thank Norman for giving us insight on St. John's and encourage you to visit Rumble In The Garden. To read my answers to Norman's questions, click here.