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TOM DAVIS: You can dismiss St. John’s mounting defeats – for now

St. John's men's basketball coach Chris Mullin gestures in the first half of a game against Butler in Indianapolis Saturday. (By The Associated Press)
St. John's guard Shamorie Ponds (2) brings the ball up court against Butler in the second half of a game in Indianapolis Saturday. (By The Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – For the 10th time this season St. John’s played a Big East men’s basketball game and for the 10th time the Red Storm went down in defeat.

Butler (15-7, 5-4 Big East) dominated St. John’s (10-12, 0-10) from the opening tip Saturday and eventually won 70-45 in front of a sold-out Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd of 9,129 fans.

There are a lot of numbers in which you could point and make a case that the Red Storm program is indeed a storm all right under third-year coach Chris Mullin. However, if you take a more objective look, a deeper look, the legendary St. John’s alum deserves some degree – not much more, maybe – but some degree of patience given his current circumstances.

“We’re trying to build a program, not a team,” second-year St. John’s Director of Athletics Anton Goff told News-Sentinel.com. “It’s going to take some time.”

It has taken “some time,” already.

Mullin has been on the job for nearly three seasons and the Red Storm program has been far less successful under his reign than it was his predecessor.

Former St. John’s coach Steve Lavin was fired after finishing a combined 20-16 within the Big East in his final two seasons, while Mullin has won just 8 of 46 games in 2 ½ years.

It is very understandable if the St. John’s fan base – and Lavin – is displeased. If this column is still relevant 12 months from now, then yes, Goff probably needs to make a really difficult decision in regards to the most famous athlete in St. John’s history.

But I don’t think that it will be, and neither do Goff or Mullin.

“I’ve been around the game long enough,” Mullin told News-Sentinel.com following the loss, “if you get health and talent, you do well. We’ve got some good talent and we have to mesh them together, get some continuity, and things will turn.”

For his sake, they better.

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The Red Storm are down to just eight scholarship players due to injuries and players redshirting, and against Butler, an ankle injury to junior forward Kassoum Yakwe made that number seven.

“I told Chris before the game,” first-year Butler coach LaVall Jordan said after his team’s win, “I said ‘I respect the heck out of what you are doing,’ because through all of the adversity, they play hard and they don’t stop fighting.”

That “adversity” started swirling around the program when St. John’s second-leading scorer (redshirt sophomore guard and Fort Wayne native Marcus LoVett) injured his knee in late November and has yet to practice or play ever since.

Mullin said that applying for a medical redshirt for LoVett was a “possibility, but no decision has been made on that.”

That injury took 15 points per night right out of the St. John’s lineup and given that 7 of the team’s 10 Big East defeats have been by seven points or less, the impact of LoVett’s absence is obvious.

“We had a tough injury,” Goff said of LoVett, “it kind of changed the whole complexion of our team.”

If LoVett returns next season, and reports of that occurring are not definitive, that would change “the whole complexion” of the program moving forward.

Mullin has five players currently averaging double figures and the Red Storm graduate just one player in senior forward Amar Alibegovic, who has never averaged more than 5.1 points per game.

Ability, depth and experience won’t be an issue if every player is healthy next season, and like Jordan alluded to, Goff said that effort hasn’t been an issue this season either and that has made an impression on him.

“(Mullin and I) talk all of the time about fighting through these adversities,” Goff said. “We think that will make us a better program down the road.

“I look at our coaching staff and I look at our players (and) are our players playing hard? Are our coaches in there fighting and trying to make things better? They are.”

In addition to those five proven scorers and possibly LoVett returning, freshman guard Bryan Trimble Jr. is averaging almost 20 minutes per game this season.

St. John’s will also have next season 6-foot-9 forward Sedee Keita (he played nearly 10 minutes per game for South Carolina’s Final Four squad a year ago), 6-foot-2 guard Mikey Dixon (he averaged over 16 points per game as a freshman for Quinnipiac and earned the MAAC Rookie of the Year honor), and 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Boubacar Diakite.

If all are available, that is a roster that should result in St. John’s propelling upward within the league.

“We’re competitive and that is all I can ask,” Goff said of this year’s squad, “is for us to go out there and fight as hard as we can. We’re a little short-handed, so I understand that our margin for error is very slim.

“Hopefully, the tide will turn for us. If it doesn’t, then we’re going to fight next year and hopefully we’ll have a full roster that we’ll be able to compete with and do the things that we want to do.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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