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AdvoCare Invitational: St. John’s is learning how to win

Chris Mullin has laid the foundation.

Chris Mullin calms his players in a time out.
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s has searched for an identity for the first two seasons of Chris Mullin’s tenure as head coach, attempting to find a formula for consistent winning.

Four days in Orlando has shown just how much St. John’s has grown in the beginning of the third year; now, a matured Red Storm wins tough contests rather than learns from valiant efforts in losses.

One year ago, St. John’s departed the early season Battle 4 Atlantis tournament with three losses against decent high and mid-major competition. Despite a formidable effort, the Red Storm were put away by Michigan State, VCU and Old Dominion.

As the Rumble wrote at the time, “ultimately, there is something that separates winners and losers. Teams that consistently win do the little things correctly, and teams that lose, don’t.”

St. John’s has had learning opportunities to help develop their identity and trust in the “process.”

  • In two victories over Syracuse, the Red Storm learned how to control a game and an opponent.
  • In the triumphs over Butler and Providence last year, St. John’s discovered how to close in high-pressure situations.
  • In success against Georgetown in the Big East Tournament, the Johnnies learned how to play with pride.

Conversely, in defeats against opponents like Villanova and Xavier, the Red Storm got to see first hand the mold of a top-tier basketball program - the attention to detail, the ability to react to opponent pressure, the confidence in the system even when the shots do not fall. Those opportunities are enhanced when the team can witness how the NBA Champions practice, as St. John’s did last week.

Flash forward to Sunday, where the Red Storm finished off Central Florida, leaving Orlando with two wins and a third-place finish in the AdvoCare Invitational.

Shamorie Ponds wrests the ball from big man Tacko Fall as Marvin Clark and Justin Simon look to fast break.
Wendell Cruz

This tournament told fans that Mullin has officially laid the groundwork for this program.

Beginning with the opening game against the Pac-12’s Oregon State, St. John’s used their offensive power to pull away from the Beavers. Trailing with less than eight minutes left, it seemed over for St. John’s. But behind the leadership and scoring of Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds, the Johnnies prevailed.

The next day, St. John’s once again fell behind - this time, to a much-improved Missouri team. The Tigers would avoid falling victim to a Red Storm comeback effort, drilling three-point shots down the stretch to defeat the Red Storm. The Johnnies played a strong game and showed promise, but ran into a hot Missouri team.

As for Sunday, both teams played very poorly throughout. While the St. John’s offense stalled against Central Florida, their defense willed them to a gritty victory. The Red Storm held UCF to just 43 points and 26% field goal percentage.

“Usually your defense picks up when you are making shots off it, but we got nothing today to help our defense, but we stuck with it,” said Mullin after the game. “I like this team, and that’s a new addition to our package coming from this weekend. We couldn’t win a game with the defense before this weekend, and now we can.”

In Mullin’s first two seasons, St. John’s record in tournaments was 2-7. They have already matched their tournament win total this season, with hopefully more of those contests to come.

“It’s very important,” said Marvin Clark II about the UCF win, and the Advocare Invitational. “It’s pivotal for our [team mentality] and our team.”

In the previous two years, the Johnnies have relied on stout offensive showings to succeed.

In year three, strong scoring outings are no longer imperative to win.

As displayed against Central Florida, even when struggling to score, this team can pull out a win - a sign of a good team.

St. John’s will have further opportunities to prove how much the Red Storm have grown in battles against a much-improved and currently-undefeated Arizona State, Saint Joseph’s and Grand Canyon.

For now, Mullin’s unit returns from Orlando with their heads held high, with fans taking notice - and with their eyes set on larger endeavors.

Strong fan support in Orlando for the Johnnies.
Wendell Cruz