Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 2, 2015

St. John’s Hopes For Cinderella On The Sideline

March yields to April, and with the turning of the calendar the Madness of the NCAA men’s tournament’s early rounds has given way to a Familiar Four converging on Indianapolis for the last act of the college basketball season. The aptly named “Tiny Dancers,” champions of lesser conferences who earned automatic bids as double-digit seeds are long gone. So too this year are the representatives of the mid-majors. Dispatched as well are the teams that thrilled fans in the early going. The first day of play in the round of 64 featured upset after upset, but every would-be Cinderella was sent back to the scullery long before the clock approached midnight.

Last weekend, as sixteen quarterfinalists were reduced to first eight and then four, ten of twelve games went according to their contestants’ seeding. As twelve game clocks wound down the scores of only four contests were close enough to be within two possessions. The last four teams standing have all been here recently. In the age of “one and done” and the resulting constant turnover of collegiate rosters, this Final Four is a reminder of the recruiting power of big-time programs and big-name coaches.

In undefeated Kentucky, the prohibitive favorite to win it all, Wisconsin, and Duke, this year’s Final Four features three number one seeds. The Wildcats are making their fourth final weekend appearance in five years; the Badgers their second in a row. The Blue Devils return after winning the title in 2010. The apparent interloper, as a number seven seed, is Michigan State; winner of last weekend’s two upsets and two of the four close finishes, to the extent those terms are accurate. But the Spartans are no strangers to the Final Four, having last been here in 2010. They began the tournament ranked 20th nationally in most of the computerized rankings, and have since moved up to around 10th; hardly the spot of rank outsiders.

But even as fans and the media descend on Lucas Oil Stadium and millions around the country prepare to get a far better view of the Final Four action on their flat screens than will the paying customers in the upper deck, other college basketball programs have already begun the transition to another season. In many instances that means the ousting of a head coach who is deemed to have failed, followed shortly thereafter by the introduction of a new leader who has been judged to have important qualities that his predecessor lacked.

Arizona State dismissed Herb Sendek after 9 seasons, and Alabama fired Anthony Grant after 6. George Mason University was a power in the mid-major Atlantic-10 Conference under Jim Larranaga and tried on the glass slipper with an improbable run to the 2006 Final Four. But Larranaga decamped for the University of Miami four years ago, and Paul Hewitt was unable to replicate the magic; so now the Patriots are searching for a new coach. So too are the Longhorns of Texas, who parted ways with Rick Barnes after 17 seasons. Barnes didn’t have time to collect unemployment, having already taken the position at Tennessee that opened up when Donnie Tyndall was axed just before the NCAA came down on him for assorted violations during his previous stop at Southern Mississippi.

Gone as well is Steve Lavin from St. John’s, despite posting a winning percentage just shy of .600 over five seasons. Like every fired coach listed here and the many others who will be relieved of duty in the next few weeks, what Lavin did not do in Queens, unlike at his previous stop at UCLA, was take the Red Storm deep into the NCAA tournament. Repeated success at the Big Dance, far more than regular season victories, is now the yardstick by which college coaches are measured.

That’s a fact that makes the choice of Lavin’s successor either incredibly daring, or phenomenally dumb. For rather than wait for the coaching carousel that has just begun to spin to go through a revolution or two, St. John’s moved quickly to fill its vacancy, announcing this week the hiring of 51-year old Chris Mullin.

To basketball fans in general, Mullin is recognizable as the sharpshooting forward for the Golden State Warriors, with whom he spent most of his 17 year NBA career. He tallied just shy of 18,000 points as a professional, among the top-70 scorers of all time. Mullin was a five-time All-Star a member of two gold medal winning Olympic teams. The second of those was the 1992 Dream Team. On that squad Mullin shot 61.9% from the field and made 53.8% of his three-point attempts. Ten years after his retirement Mullin was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But at St. John’s Chris Mullin is all of that and so much more. There it is likely to be his first Olympic appearance that is remembered, for that was as an amateur in 1984, when Mullin was in the midst of his college career at St. John’s. Three decades after his graduation he still holds the school’s career scoring record. Three times he was named Player of the Year in the Big East Conference, and as a senior he won the Wooden Award as the country’s top male college player. That was the season in which he restored St. John’s to a glory it had not known in decades. With the legendary coach Lou Carnesecca pacing the sideline, Mullin took St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four. Along the way the program scored its first number one national ranking since 1951.

Like the now 90-year old Carnesecca, who was present at the press conference turned pep rally at which Mullin was introduced this week, the Red Storm’s new coach is a legend in New York City and especially on the campus in Queens. His ties and commitment to the University, his embodiment of the school’s greatest hardcourt glory, plus his record as an NBA player, all could help Mullin when he sets about the largely unseen but vitally important work of every Division I head coach, recruiting high school talent.

But what Mullin has never been at any level, until this week, is a coach. After he retired from the NBA Mullin worked in the Warriors front office, initially on the business side and later in basketball operations. Five years ago he began working as a television analyst, and for the past two years has been a special advisor to the Sacramento Kings. Executive experience is fine, but as Phil Jackson is learning ever so painfully on the other side of the East River from the St. John’s campus, that’s not the same thing as coaching. Not every great player nor every talented executive makes a great coach (or in Jackson’s case, vice versa).

Whether Chris Mullin can parlay his deep ties and extraordinary history with St. John’s into recruiting success will largely depend on whether that personal story can overcome understandable doubts on the part of high school stars who will also be receiving offers from programs whose coaches have well established pedigrees. If he’s successful it will a great basketball story brought full circle, and for both Mullin and St. John’s a dream come true. But then again, as this year’s Familiar, make that Final Four remind us, while college basketball relentlessly markets the possibility of dreams every March, usually by April harder truths prevail

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