Why St. John's believes in Mike Anderson (even if you might not)

UniqueThis 6 October 8, 2019
7:00 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Mike Anderson knows pace. His entire basketball brand is based on pace, dating back to his days under Nolan Richardson and his "40 Minutes of Hell."

And Anderson had heard the old adages about a "New York minute," how everything is faster in New York City. But he still wasn't ready for it when he arrived as the new head coach at St. John's in April.

"When I got the job, I was here for a month before I went back to Arkansas," Anderson told ESPN. "Man, the pace was unbelievable. I went back there and it was like things were in slow motion."

He said he's used to the speed of things now -- which is a good thing, given that he had to hit the ground running since replacing Chris Mullin. Red Storm fans are hoping Anderson's reputation for speed carries over to the rebuilding effort that faces him, too. Anderson has to replace six players from last season's team, but even Mullin -- the school's all-time greatest player -- started feeling heat after three years in charge.

Anderson understands slow doesn't work in the Big Apple.

Mike Cragg found out the same way most of the college basketball world did: on Twitter, the night of the national championship game.

The St. John's athletic director was on a flight back to New York from the Final Four in Minneapolis when news broke that Mullin was planning to step down as the head coach of the Red Storm.

"When I landed, my phone was blowing up," Cragg said.

Rumors had swirled all week about tension between Mullin and the St. John's administration, leading Cragg to make a statement on Final Four Saturday that "Coach Mullin is our head coach and we are not looking for another head coach." Cragg and Mullin had multiple meetings in the two weeks between the time St. John's lost to Arizona State in the First Four and when coaches, agents and athletic directors descended on Minneapolis for the final weekend of the season.

"I didn't know everything that was going on [on Twitter]; I knew some of it. I said, if something happens that I need to know, please let me know. The narrative didn't matter. My job was to find our head coach."
St. John's AD Mike Cragg

While sources told ESPN at the time that there were points of contention during the meetings, Cragg says now that he left the final meeting with Mullin thinking the Hall of Famer was still going to be head coach moving forward.

"It was a surprise," Cragg said.

Suddenly, Mullin was out and Cragg needed a basketball coach. Just over six months into his first stint as an athletic director, Cragg was being tasked with finding a replacement for one of the best basketball players to ever come out of New York.

It didn't take long for a narrative to form around the Red Storm's coaching search. Arizona State's Bobby Hurley signed a contract extension, Loyola-Chicago's Porter Moser decided to stay with the Ramblers and Iona's Tim Cluess also announced he was taking himself out of the running. Vitaminwater founder Mike Repole, an alumnus and major booster for the St. John's program, went on Mike Francesa's WFAN show in New York to rant about the coaching search, calling it a "national embarrassment."

Cragg didn't pay attention to most of it. His first order of business after Mullin stepped down? Deleting Twitter from his phone.

"It was like, 'How in the heck is this out there?'" Cragg said of the rumors and reports about the St. John's search. "I couldn't see all this stuff. So I deleted it. ... I didn't know everything that was going on [on Twitter]; I knew some of it. I said, if something happens that I need to know, please let me know.

"The narrative didn't matter. My job was to find our head coach."

After a couple public swings and misses, Cragg forged on. He didn't hire a search firm, instead relying on the advice of his former colleagues at Duke -- namely Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel. While discussing names with Capel over the phone one day, the Pittsburgh head coach suggested Anderson, who had been fired on March 26 after eight seasons as Arkansas' coach. Cragg wanted to know if Anderson would entertain the idea -- and while Capel was calling Anderson to gauge his interest, Cragg called Krzyzewski.

"That would be a home run," Krzyzewski told Cragg.

"I've always thought he was a really good coach," said Capel, who coached against Anderson while at VCU and Oklahoma. "If you look at UAB, what he did there, if you look at Missouri, what he did there -- taking over a mess in both situations. ... In all these situations, fit is very important. And I thought Mike Cragg and Mike Anderson would be a good fit for each other."

Anderson and Cragg talked for a total of five hours over the next day, and after nine days of searching that seemed much longer to those monitoring the situation, Cragg had his man. On top of his checklist was head-coaching experience and experience rebuilding a program; someone who had done it before.

"Throughout, you had to remain confident we would get to the right answer," Cragg said. "I knew we would find somebody who fit that. I didn't know who it was going to be, but I never believed we wouldn't find that person."

The hire was met with surprise, both from those in the industry and in the St. John's fan base. Anderson, an Alabama native who spent 25 seasons as an assistant coach and head coach at Arkansas, also had stints with Tulsa, UAB and Missouri. When it comes to big-city programs looking to recreate their glory years, there's a common perception you need a head coach with ties to the area and to heavily recruit within the area to win.

Anderson isn't from New York, doesn't have ties to New York and, in fact, has never coached north of Missouri or east of Alabama. But in Cragg's eyes, St. John's is more than a regional school and didn't need to limit itself to the immediate area.

"We're a national brand," he said. "That's why we're here. That's why this job was appealing to me, that's why it's appealing to him. We're playing on the biggest stage in the country, if not the world: New York City. ... I'm not from New York, either. We're going to figure it out."

Anderson went out and hired two assistant coaches with strong ties to the area: Queens native Van Macon, who was at Saint Louis for three years but has been on several college staffs, and Bayside, New York, native Steve DeMeo, who was most recently the head coach at Northwest Florida State at the junior college level for six seasons.

It's paid off quickly. St. John's landed Brooklyn native Julian Champagnie in late May to join the 2019 class, and also picked up Cleveland State transfer Rasheem Dunn, another Brooklyn product, over the summer. In the 2020 class, the Red Storm have four-star point guard Posh Alexander and shooting guard Dylan Wusu, teammates at Our Savior Lutheran High School in The Bronx.

"We got to build some fences, the ones that we feel can come here and be the best versions of themselves -- that's the key -- on the floor and off the floor," Anderson said. "The opportunity for your family to see you play, not only at Carnesecca [Arena] but at Madison Square Garden. You're in a pro town."

Anderson has been a mainstay in gyms around the New York City area, looking to connect with local high school and grassroots coaches.

"It doesn't matter if you're from New York or outside of New York, if you don't build relationships or spend time with people, you're not going to be successful," DeMeo said. "He's done both of those things in a short amount of time. He's intimately involved with recruiting on a daily basis."

Anderson made it a priority to watch the local grassroots programs during the live period in April, and also went to the New York City high school events during the June period. He has invited grassroots directors to campus and tried to get in front of prospects and their families as much as possible.

Peter Wehye, who coaches Alexander and Wusu at Our Savior Lutheran and with the New York Lightning of the Nike EYBL circuit, said he was surprised when St. John's hired Anderson -- but was impressed upon meeting him.

"He's been extremely active," Wehye said of the new staff's approach to recruiting New York. "They're aggressive, straightforward. [Anderson is] just an honest dude. That's what I like the most. And they put the work in. They were there at open gyms with the whole staff. ... It's definitely a renewed effort."

Senior guard Mustapha Heron agreed, noting a sales pitch that should appeal to players.

"We're playing up and down, aggressive, pesky type of style," Heron said. "That's what New York is known for. If you're a New Yorker that can play, this should be one of the spots you're looking at."

Anderson is a disciple of Nolan Richardson, first playing under him for two seasons at Tulsa and then coaching on his staff for 20 years at both Tulsa and Arkansas. Richardson is best-known for his "40 Minutes of Hell" philosophy, an up-tempo style filled with pressure defense and forcing turnovers. Since branching out on his own 17 years ago, Anderson has carried that system with him.

Anderson ranked in the top 55 nationally in adjusted tempo in each of his first 13 seasons as a head coach, including 10 seasons in the top 25. Simultaneously, he ranked in the top 20 nationally in defensive turnover percentage in 11 of his first 13 seasons -- including two seasons at No. 1. Both of those numbers came down significantly during his final four seasons with the Razorbacks, but it's going to be a staple at St. John's.

"We can bring a style of play that people in New York can appreciate," Anderson said. "Blue-collar, getting after it, play with toughness, play with pace. A lot of coaches will say, 'We'll play fast.' Well, we play fast. And it's entertaining basketball. Kids can relate to it. Think about the players that play on playgrounds, they'll be able to relate to it."

"A lot of coaches talk about running, a lot of coaches talk about pressing, a lot of coaches talk about trapping, but not a lot of coaches do it," DeMeo added. "We have film, we have stats, we have NBA guys that have come through his program. It's 100 percent true."

Heron said the biggest change he has noticed with the new system is at practices, with the team's conditioning.

"It's a needed adjustment," he said. "When teams start hitting that wall, going into the postseason, we'll be hitting our stride because of things we've been doing this time of the year. ... If you can go, coach is going to let you go, it's as simple as that."

St. John's shouldn't be too behind the curve when it comes to pushing the tempo; the Red Storm ranked in the top 50 nationally in both adjusted tempo and defensive turnover percentage multiple times under Mullin. That said, Anderson's chaotic style is a totally different beast.

So there might be some growing pains, both with Anderson's system and rebuilding the program to bring it back to its glory days -- something both Anderson and Cragg think is possible.

"It's a process. It just doesn't happen overnight. We'll go through some phases," Anderson said. "It may be more like 25 minutes of hell, 15 minutes of what the hell are we doing? But it'll eventually get better and better."

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