St. John’s faced an uncertain future a year ago.
Candidates were turning the school down as it looked to fill its coaching vacancy. When Mike Anderson, who had been fired from Arkansas, was hired, some questioned bringing in a man who had no connections to New York.
He came in and was able to keep Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa from transferring, a critical move as the Red Storm lost several contributors to the 2019 NCAA Tournament team. A freshman point guard, John McGriff, had to miss the season with a shoulder injury. Heron’s season ended early due to injuries.
The team battled to a 17-15 finish, including impressive wins over West Virginia, Arizona and Creighton. And the Johnnies were beating Creighton in the Big East Tournament when play was stopped because of coronavirus concerns.
In a culture change, years of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations have been replaced by optimism and hope — leaving aside the virus crisis, that is.
As the Big East Tournament began, Anderson, who has never finished under .500 in 17 seasons as a head coach, spoke about working in New York City.
Anderson said he spoke to George Raveling, the former head coach of Washington State, Iowa and USC.
“He just said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’” Anderson recalled in a teleconference. “‘Basketball is basketball. Coaching is coaching, so just continue to be who you are and do the things you believe in.’ At St. John’s, I’m believing in these kids. I’m pushing these kids. We’re trying to develop these young men. That doesn’t change.”
For much of the decade, St. John’s was plagued by players transferring as well as the distraction of the possibility of players transferring. Coaches Steve Lavin and Chris Mullin were criticized for not being visible enough in city gyms on the recruiting trail. When Fox cameras went inside the huddle once during a timeout, viewers saw Mullin tying his shoes while an assistant coach spoke to the team.
Other moments of the decade include Rysheed Jordan, a talented member of the 2015 NCAA Tournament team, being convicted of attempted murder; shot-blocking machine Chris Obekpa being suspended for the 2015 NCAA Tournament because of a failed drug test; and highly touted recruit Zach Brown being released from his National Letter of Intent after he was charged with robbing a Walgreen’s in Florida.
During last year’s coaching search Mike Repole, Vitamin water CEO and St. John’s donor, blasted the school’s administration during an interview with Mike Francesa.
Many fans wanted Tim Cluess, who led Iona to six NCAA Tournaments but the school didn’t hire him. Cluess stepped down in March due to health reasons.
As St. John’s search dragged on, Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel recommended Anderson to Mike Cragg, the St. John’s athletic director who spent more than 30 years at Duke.
It seems as if the right coach fell into the Johnnies’ laps.
“Whether I’m a country boy or a city boy, I’m loving St. John’s,” Anderson said. “I’m loving New York.”