Mullin Ready to Turn the Corner in Year Three

Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett ready to make an impact on both sides of the ball


With a talented and more experienced roster, St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin is hunting for the postseason (Torch Photo/Nick Bello).

Derrell Bouknight, Co-Sports Editor

New faces and an improved roster have Chris Mullin ready to get his third season as head coach of the Red Storm underway Nov. 1 in a home exhibition against American International.

From the opening at the coaches panel to the media scrum that surrounded him minutes later at Big East Media Day last Wednesday, Mullin praised his team for how they’ve come together over the offseason through workouts and practices. After a six-game improvement in his sophomore campaign, the basketball Hall-of-Famer is excited to showcase an abundance of new and returning talent.

After strolling the floors of Madison Square Garden to do television interviews, Mullin settled down underneath a basket to preview his team. The smile on his face threw away anything he tried to hide. This year may finally be the year. Fans have waited since the 2014-2015 season to see their Red Storm return to the NCAA Tournament. And for Mullin, that quest begins with the play of his star-studded backcourt.

“I think it’s just natural, just time together,” Mullin said of the development of Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds. “Being confident in their teammates to share the basketball, and also taking on big responsibilities defensively and rebounding. That’s something we need from them.”

St. John’s returns six players who saw significant time on the court last season. Aside from Ponds and LoVett, big men Tariq Owen and Kassoum Yakwe as well as versatile contributors Amar Alibegovic and Bashir Ahmed will play key roles if the Johnnies want to make a run into the postseason.

Eligible transfers Marvin Clark Jr. and Justin Simon will make an immediate impact. Simon, who came over from Arizona, is a versatile player who can play both guard and forward. With his ability to handle the ball and run the offense, Mullin believes he can use Simon in a number of ways. He plans to use him as a primary ball-handler in a small lineup with Ponds and LoVett, who would play off the ball and spot up for shots beyond the arc.

Listed at roughly 6 foot 7 and close to 240 pounds, Clark adds a physical presence that Mullin says the team lacked last season. Although his height takes away from him being a true center, Mullin said Clark will see significant time at the five spot.

A noticeable difference was seen during pickup games and workouts in the summer, one that Mullin referred to as “tremendous”.

“I’d say speed, length, athleticism. And from last year’s team to this summer, just experience and maturation. I think physically and mentally, guys are more confident in themselves. They understand what’s being asked of them, and more open to fulfilling what’s being asked of them.”

In a conference as challenging as the Big East, Mullin and other coaches acknowledged how hard it is to win. Whether on the road or in their home gym, each opponent, despite their record, brings an intensity that can be hard to match. Mullin, calling experience invaluable, believes his team is suited to withstand much of the triumphs that the conference presents.

“Just understanding what it takes to win just a single Big East game, then to go out on the road and win, being able to deal with the losses and bouncing back…all that stuff you learn by going through it,” he said. “You can’t tell guys how to handle that. They have to go through it themselves.”

Two years after finishing at the bottom of the conference, Mullin believes this year’s team is poised and ready to take the next step. He was confident, but slight breaks in his normally reserved demeanor gave way to his anticipation for what could be his best season as a coach.

To bring his alma mater back to prominence, Mullin knows that nothing will come easy. The Garden was the perfect place to reference boxing, a plaque of Ali and Frazier just around the corner in the tunnel. Even if their backs are against the wall, the Red Storm won’t back down from anyone.

“We know we can play with anybody in the country on a given night, and we can get beat,” he said. “That’s a good thing. You always have your guard up. That’s why you rehearse. That’s why you practice.”

Inevitably, challenges will arise. But for St. John’s to return to glory, it’s all necessary.

“That’s why you spar with each other. And every time you come out, you know damn well if you don’t put your best effort out there, you get beat.”