CHRIS MULLIN! I'm not sure you're allowed to write an article about St. John's these days without Chris Mullin in all caps and at least one exclamation point, so I wanted to get that out of the way early. Mullin is the big news in the Big East coaching ranks this year. The Red Storm were their usual underachieving, overhyped selves last year, and that was apparently the end of the rope for Steve Lavin. To take his place the SJU administration turned to a guy with exactly zero games of coaching experience. That's none at any level, ever. Supposedly Mullin was going to make up for that by landing all the great recruits out of NYC, but that obviously won't be a testable thesis for at least a year. For now, the Red Storm were picked by the Big East coaches and Jon Rothstein to finish dead last.
Usually a new coach at least has a core of players to rely on as he eases his way into the job. That's also not the case for Mullin. In the perfect storm that was this offseason for St. John's all but three players left via draft, transfer, or graduation. Those three combined to play a grand total of 528 minutes last year. For reference, that's a bit more than JP Macura played on his own. Those three, who we'll get into later, averaged four points per game as a group. Mullin hits the floor crawling with basically no help left over from last year's very talented roster.
There are only three. Amar Alibegovic (1.5/1.5/.1) is a 6-9 forward who would, if he played a full 40 minutes, nearly foul out twice. He's joined by Felix Balamou (1.3/1.3/.2) a 6-4 senior backup guard who averaged a career high nine minutes per game last year and Christian Jones (1.2/1.2/0) a 6-7 swing man who appeared in all of 20 games. No exaggeration here, that's literally all the Johnnies are returning.
As you may have guessed, there are a lot. Chief among those is Marcus Lovett, a four star point guard out of Chicago. Lovett figures to start from day one for the Red Storm and is a score first and score second style of point guard. He'll put up points (possibly a lot of points), but it may not be terribly efficient. Kassoum Yawke was 99th on the ESPN100 and joins Lovett as the crown jewels of this class. Yawke is from Mali and comes with the ability to make the athletic plays, but not yet the polish to impact the game offensively as anything other than a very rough leaper. His defense and rebounding are ready to play at this level now.
Joining Lovett and Yawke is paper clip thin center Yankuba Sima. Sima is 6-11, 215 who comes with a college ready level of skill already. Something of the opposite of Yawke, he can play the game but rather clearly lacks the body for it. Joining him on the post will be juco transfer Darien Williams, who originally committed to Iowa Sate but ended up with the Red Storm. Williams is a 6-7, 210 wing who according to Rumble in the Garden averaged "16 points per game and seven rebounds, shooting 41% from outside the arc. He took 29% of his shots from beyond the arc, so he's not strictly a deep shooter; and he shot 55% inside the arc and drew foul shots at a rate of 44% (free throws taken divided by field goals taken), a solid number."
That's not it though, Malik Ellison and Federico Mussini will also suit up for St. John's this year. Ellison is a 6-6 guard who also had an offer from Xavier. Ellison is a solid player now who projects to still be growing into his body. Depending on how that goes, he could either be a non-factor or add the explosion to make himself a scoring threat at times. Mussini played for Italy's U19 squad and shot over 43% from behind the arc last year. Polished already from the European game, Mussini's small stature (6-0, 150) figures to be his biggest hurdle to overcome.
Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika, both graduate seniors and both listed 6-6, 205, finish up the eligible roster. Johnson sat out last year for Pitt because of injury but averaged 8.8/3.0/1.4 in the 2013-14 season. He was averaging nearly 20 minutes per contest for the Panthers before he was injured, so he adds immediate depth. Mvouika played twice last year for Missouri State before being injured. The year before he averaged 6.8/3.6/1.7 in 18 minutes of game time.
It all depends on how this team comes together. Eight new players and five freshman bring a great deal of uncertainty about squad rotations. It's not as if the three returnees are anchors of a program either, they all did very little last year. That leaves Mullin the task of organizing a team while playing in the second most difficult league in the nation. The schedule starts with cupcakes before a matchup against Vanderbilt in the Maui Invitational. That, and a game against Syracuse, represent the only challenges in an impossibly easy non-conference schedule.
The complete neophyte at head coach has some talent to work with here. The players he has assembled aren't along the lines of the desperation Jeff Robinson/Griffin McKenzie class Chris Mack faced in his first year at Xavier, they're actually capable of being quite good. If they all play together, if the freshman all hit their highest projections, and if Mullin isn't routinely and comprehensively outcoached, this team could land in the middle of the Big East. All those if's, though, are the reason that most pundits don't see that happening.