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.
Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing looking to lead their alma maters back to the NCAA Tournament
By ADAM ZAGORIANEW YORK — Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing sat next to one another during a brief question-and-answer session at Thursday’s Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden. The two old friends whispered and laughed, looking like best buddies instead of the fierce rivals they were more than three decades ago.
That was when the Big East Conference was really the Big East. When three Big East teams, including Mullin’s St. John’s Redmen and Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas, advanced to the 1985 Final Four. The Cinderella Villanova Wildcats, coached by Rollie Massimino, beat “Big” John Thompson, Ewing and the Hoyas in the final that year.
Since then Villanova has won two more NCAA titles under “GQ” Jay Wright, while neither Georgetown nor St. John’s has cut down the nets.
Those two schools probably won’t do so in 2019 in Minneapolis, either, but one or both programs could go dancing in March.
Entering Mullin’s fourth year at the helm of his alma mater, the coach has his best team yet. It was picked fourth in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll and CBSSports.com ranked St. John’s the No. 20 team in the nation.
Going into Ewing’s second year at the helm of his alma mater, the Hoyas were picked seventh in the 10-team league while CBSSports.com ranked them No. 100 nationally.
Wright, for one, would like to see Mullin and Ewing stalking the sidelines come March Madness.
“I think it would mean a lot to the league,” Wright, whose team was picked to win the Big East, told me Thursday. “I think what our country likes about college basketball is the tradition, the history, the rivalries, and Patrick and Chris, they exude that. So I think everyone in college basketball would love it, I think fans would love it. I think the Big East would love it. I just don’t want them to take our spot.”
To succeed in the brutal Big East, you need experience. And both teams have more of it now than when Mullin and Ewing first took over their alma maters.
“I think both of them are going to be really good this year, I really do,” Wright said. “Both of them were the teams that were young that are now going to be experienced and not just young in terms of players, but young in terms of their coaches . They didn’t have the team for a long time…They were only with Patrick and Chris for a couple years, so [now] the coaches are experienced, the teams are experienced. I think they’re both going to be really good.”
With the addition of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron (16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) on a hardship waiver and the return of Big East Preseason Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds (21.6 ppg), St. John’s has a potent 1-2 punch. They also return guard Justin Simon, an Arizona transfer, and forward Marvin Clark, a Michigan State transfer, while adding several other key college and JUCO transfers and high school recruits. Simon was named to the Preseason All-Big East Second Team.
“I would’ve liked to have done it a little quicker in our progress, but there has been steady progress,” Mullin told me Thursday. “Experience is a huge factor, probably moreso now than in the past. So we have that. We’ve got good talent, we’ve got good offensive players. We’ve got to rebound and play defense and share the ball. So we’re optimistic.”
Mullin is not shying away from setting the NCAA Tournament as the goal, but said it’s about the daily grind.
“Of course,” he said of seeking to make the Big Dance. “But the focus is on our daily habits. Nothing happens without that.”
He added: “The most important thing is understanding what it takes.”
At Georgetown, Ewing boasts senior big man Jessie Govan, the Queens Village, N.Y., native who was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Watch List and was selected to the Preseason All-Big East First Team. He averaged 17.9 points and 10.0 rebounds last season.
“He can get a lot better,” Ewing said. “I think that he’s the strength of our team. We have some very good guards, but if we’re going to do anything in the Big East, he’s going to have to step up and play the way that he’s capable of playing.”
Former St. Anthony’s star Jagan Mosely (6.6 ppg, 2.9 apg) returns at the point. The Hoyas are awaiting word on whether 7-foot N.C. State transfer Omer Yurtseven will get a waiver to play.
Govan, for one, wants to get to the Big Dance before graduating.
“Yeah, it would be huge,” he told me. “That’s one of the big goals that we have this year. I think it’s a main goal for everybody on the team this year. We want to get back to the Tournament and make some news in March.”
And how cool would it be to have Ewing and Mullin patrolling the sidelines again during March Madness?
“Yeah, I mean St. John’s, they got a great team this year,” Govan said. “They’re trying to make some noise, we’re trying to do the same thing. They were so successful in their college careers, we’re trying to make them successful in their coaching careers as well.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, 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.