Mike Anderson
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Despite the disappointing season in Queens, St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson appears to be the right man for the job.

Danny Small

Conference play hasn’t gone well for St. John’s this year. At 3-10 in Big East play and 14-12 overall, the Red Storm will need a miracle to make the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t mean the 2019-20 season has been a complete waste. For one, head coach Mike Anderson is a bright spot during an otherwise mediocre season.

After St. John’s parted ways with Chris Mullin after last season, the coaching search was nothing short of embarrassing. The Johnnies went big-game hunting, but Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley rebuffed their advances. Porter Moser, who took Loyola-Chicago to the Final Four in 2018, turned down a massive eight-year contract. And perhaps worst of all, they jerked around Iona’s Tim Cluess while they pursued bigger fish before the St. John’s alum pulled his name out of consideration for the job.

And after the exhausting—not necessarily exhaustive—search, the school landed on Anderson. The longtime coach made stops at UAB, Missouri, and Arkansas during his coaching career, but had no significant connection to Queens or St. John’s. The hire felt anti-climactic after all the earlier drama, but it could have been a blessing in disguise.

Agonizing losses

The Johnnies are a much better team than their record would suggest. Don’t believe it? Let’s look at four of their 10 losses in the Big East: No. 11 Butler (60-58), No. 18 Seton Hall (82-79), Georgetown (73-72), and Xavier (77-74).

Each loss was more excruciating than the last. The losses to Butler and Seton Hall could have been turning points in the season, but Anderson’s squad couldn’t finish the job for resumé-building wins. In the other two losses, Georgetown overcame a 17-point deficit to shock St. Johns while Xavier finished their five-point win with an 8-0 run in the final two minutes. A play here or there in any of those games and this season might not look so bleak.

Simply put, St. John’s just doesn’t have the talent to get over the hump this year. Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa are nice players, but they aren’t in the same tier as guys like Myles Powell of Seton Hall and Kamar Baldwin of Butler.

That’s not Anderson’s fault. After all, he’s working with the usual mismatched group that emerges after a coaching change. Heron and Figueroa are the only two contributors who returned from Mullin’s NCAA Tournament squad last season. The fact that Anderson has these misfit toys competing with the big boys in one of the best conferences in the country is a major positive for St. John’s fans.

Bringing in his guys

If he can recruit the right type of guys to fit his system and find a few diamonds in the rough, Anderson could build a sustainable winner in Queens—something fans haven’t had since the late 1990s/early 2000s.

The beauty of Anderson’s style is that he doesn’t need a team full of blue-chip recruits to be successful. His high-pressure defense needs aggressive, instinctive athletes who can thrive amidst a sea of chaos. There are few coaches with a better background in this type of approach.

Anderson spent 17 years as an assistant under legendary Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson where the two went to three Final Fours and won a national championship in 1994. Richardson’s style was known as “40 Minutes of Hell” and the up-tempo, frenetic style still works today.

It’s tough to criticize Anderson for this season. He’s making the most out of his current situation and the intriguing style of play he favors should be even more effective in years to come. The Johnnies aren’t quite where they want to be, but Anderson looks like the right guy to lead the way.

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