Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — Rutgers and St. John’s both dipped into their pasts with an eye toward the future when hiring their current men’s basketball coaches.
In 2013, Rutgers brought back Eddie Jordan, a star of their 1976 Final Four team and a former NBA player and coach, with hopes that he could stabilize their image in the post-Mike Rice era and lead them to success as they transitioned to the Big Ten Conference.
Last spring, St. John’s hired Chris Mullin, the star of their 1985 Final Four outfit and a former NBA Dream Teamer, to replace the outgoing Steve Lavin with the hopes that he could restore the program to something resembling its mid-1980s glory.
After being picked to finish last in their respective leagues, both programs face plenty of obstacles to becoming relevant in their own conferences, much less nationally.
But on Thursday night St. John’s came from 16 points down in the second half to beat Rutgers, 61-59, in a Gavitt Tip-Off Game at Carnesecca Arena. Score another one for the Big East in the series.
(In something of an ironic twist, Lavin was on hand — sporting a coat and tie, which he seldom wore as a coach — to call the game for Fox Sports 1.)
“All these experiences, good, bad, close, these are all experiences we’re going to go through together to make us better,” Mullin said. “We’re building something so each experience is going to be valuable in the long run.”
For St. John’s (3-0), 6-foot-11 freshman Yankuba Sima and freshman point guard Federico Mussini had 13 points apiece, grad student Ron Mvouika tallied 12 points and 10 rebounds and senior guard Felix Balamou — who was reinstated by the NCAA before the game after missing the first two games with an NCAA violation — finished with 8 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists.
“A couple weeks ago we went to the Big East media day [and] as all of you guys know they got us all the way at the bottom,” said Balamou, a native of Guinea. “But we’re not worried about that..We’re going to execute and play our game.”
The Red Storm will fly to the Maui Invitational on Friday morning feeling good about themselves. They don’t play until facing Vanderbilt on Monday, giving them the weekend in Hawaii to practice and hope that Malik Ellison (foot) and Darien Williams (shoulder) heal up after missing the game.
Bishop Daniels had a career-high 21 points for the Scarlet Knights (2-1), who failed to execute on the final possessions down the stretch and then watched as Daniels’ potential game-winning three-pointer went through the net after the horn sounded.
“They just out-hearted us,” said Jordan, whose team went 5-for-14 from the stripe. “They had more grit, more determination, more will. …down the stretch they had more will and determination than we did.”
He added: “I don’t know if I can teach heart, but they just out-hearted us.”
In the longer term, one wonders whether Jordan and Mullin can ever return their programs to the glory years of the 1970s or ’80s.
Much is standing in their way.
Rutgers hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and has been a bottom-feeder in whatever league its been in in recent years, be it the Big East, the AAC or the Big Ten.
Now as he moves into Year 4 of a five-year contract paying him an average of $1.25 million annually, the pressure is surely building on Jordan.
This year and next he will probably have to show some significant improvement to ward off calls for yet another coaching change on the banks.
It will be tough considering Rutgers, picked last in the Big Ten, has to deal with the Michigan States, Marylands, Indianas, Wisconsins and Michigans of the world.
The Scarlet Knights will lose three players from this team and don’t have a single commit in the Class of 2016 after guard Kwe Parker decommitted. Jordan and his staff may have to go the JUCO or overseas routes to add some players in the spring.
At St. John’s, a new and hopeful era has just begun as Mullin is in the first year of a deal reportedly worth more than $2 million annually.
Mullin and his crack staff led by Barry “Slice” Rohrssen and Matt Abdelmassih did strong work by adding nine new players after Lavin’s departure, even if point guard Marcus LoVett and forward Kassoum Yakwe aren’t NCAA-eligible.
They have some nice young pieces, but will have their work cut out with the Villanovas and Georgetowns of the world every year, to say nothing of rising Big East programs like Marquette and Butler.
St. John’s can no longer advance to Final Fours solely on the backs of city kids like Chris Mullin and Walter Berry, but they are doing their best to put a wall around New York.
On Wednesday, they announced the signing of guard Shamorie Ponds of Thomas Jefferson as their lone 2016 commit.
Indicating their need to spread their recruiting base, sources said they are also strongly in the mix for German small forward Richard Freudenberg.
Slice has also made them relevant with late-signing studs like 7-footer Thon Maker of Orangeville Prep (Ontario) and Brooklyn’s Rawle Alkins of Word of God (N.C.).
Still, it figures to be at least another couple of years before St. John’s can think of a return to the NCAA Tournament — where Lavin took them last season.
The futures of both programs remain hazy at best, but on this night Mullin and St. John’s emerged from Carnesecca with the win.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.