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Rivals old and new: Mike Anderson has St. John's stabilized and ready to wage Garden battles with UConn men

Dom Amore, The Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

HARTFORD, Conn. -- St. John's promising season ended in disappointment in 2019 and the school painfully parted ways with one of its legends, coach Chris Mullin. The search for his replacement ran into dead ends until a prominent booster, Mike Repole, went on WFAN-AM to call it a "national embarrassment."

The men's basketball program had New York's attention, all right, but for all the wrong reasons.

On the sidelines, meanwhile, was a coach with vast experience, a program-builder who had never had a losing season. Mike Anderson accepted the New York challenge, and brought a steady hand for troubled times.

"What you try to bring in is, a calmness, an even keel," Anderson said. "You're starting off, starting over again for the most part. ... The first thing I did, I got in and I got a chance to sit down with our players. Those were the most important recruits, the guys that were coming back. I had to re-recruit them."

During 2019-20, Anderson's first season, the Red Storm started out well, hit bumps in the road when Big East play started, then finished with wins over Creighton, Marquette and Georgetown over the last four games, before the conference tournament was called off due to the coronavirus. They were 17-15, making it 18 seasons in a row of .500 or better for Anderson.

"We started off as one team, and we finished off as another type of team," Anderson said. "We played well early on, and then in conference play, boom, we got popped upside the head before we woke up and figured out how to finish games and win games."

 

Anderson, 60, sounds a lot like UConn's Dan Hurley when he talks about program building. Establishing a "culture," a mindset, making winning habits second nature. "I don't want to be a flash in the pan, I want to build a program," he said.

So St. John's will enter Anderson's second season on an upswing, in time for the renewal of an old, original Big East rivalry with UConn, two proud programs in various stages of striving to recapture the success their fans once savored.

The teams first met in the 1951 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden, St. John's, coached by Hall of Famer Frank McGuire, eliminating Hugh Greer's Huskies. When the Big East first formed, St. John's was one of the teams on the top of the mountain, and beat UConn 17 in a row between 1981 and '89. As Jim Calhoun squared off each year with Lou Carnesecca in a battle of irrepressible legends, UConn turned the tide and came to dominate the conference. With a victory at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 6, 2013, St. John's holds a 35-28 all-time edge.

The "new" Big East and UConn announced plans a year ago to reunite, and UConn's move from the American Athletic Conference became official on July 1.

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