November 22, 2015

Chris Mullin's transition into coaching has gone flawlessly, though the competition is about to become considerably tougher for St. John's.

Mullin's unbeaten Red Storm gets their biggest test to date when they open a loaded Maui Invitational against No. 19 Vanderbilt on Monday.

After leaving the Sacramento Kings' front office for a return to his alma mater, Mullin has guided the rebuilding Red Storm to three wins over a relatively light slate of opponents. That won't be the case when St. John's plays its first games outside of Carnesecca Arena in the prestigious Maui tournament that also contains ranked teams Kansas and Indiana as well as UCLA and UNLV among the field.

Vanderbilt (3-0) looms as a contender as well after returning six of its top seven scorers, including NBA prospect Damian Jones, from last season's 21-14 squad that reached the NIT quarterfinals. That's a vast experience edge on a St. John's program gutted by graduations and transfers during the offseason.

Mullin inherited a group whose top returning scorer averaged 1.5 points per game, with the Red Storm losing every key member from last season's NCAA Tournament participant under Steve Lavin. The revamped roster has received boosts from graduate transfers Ron Mvouika (Missouri State) and Durand Johnson (Pittsburgh) while also receiving early contributions from freshmen Federico Mussini (16.3 ppg) and Yankuba Sima.

Felix Balamou also is being counted on for an increased impact and did just that in his season debut. The senior guard compiled eight points and set career highs with 11 rebounds and seven assists off the bench to help rally the Red Storm to a 61-59 win over Rutgers on Thursday.

Balamou sat out the first two games due to an eligibility issue.

"That is huge at any level," said Mullin of Balamou's performance. "He chipped in with eight points and played tremendous defense. He's our best perimeter defender. Credit to Felix for practicing really hard, staying ready and focused, and being able to transfer all of that work from practice to the game."

Sima aided St. John's comeback from a 16-point halftime deficit with 13 points and six blocks. The 6-foot-11 Spanish center has 12 rejections and anchored a defense that's held opponents to 33.2 percent shooting.

"Our defense is ahead of our offense," Mullin said. "I thought we hung in there, stayed positive and gave ourselves a shot."

The balanced Commodores figure to present a challenge for Mullin's defense. Vanderbilt has averaged 85.7 points and has five players currently in double figures, with Jones (11.7 ppg) and fellow 7-footer Luke Kornet (10.7 ppg) forming an imposing frontcourt and guards Wade Baldwin III (14.7 ppg), Riley LaChance (11.0 ppg) and Matthew Fisher-Davis each shooting 40 percent or better from 3-point range.

Baldwin did not start Thursday against Stony Brook due to a bruised back but tallied a career-high 21 points off the bench, helping Vanderbilt to a hard-earned 79-72 overtime win. The Commodores trailed the Seawolves, the America East preseason favorites, by 10 with 12 1/2 minutes left in regulation.

''We were outplayed for the better part of 35 minutes,'' coach Kevin Stallings said. ''Fortunately, in the last four minutes our guys dug in. We had some big shots, we had some big stops."

Vanderbilt has lost five of six against St. John's, though the schools haven't met since November 1977.

The teams will face either No. 13 Indiana or Wake Forest on Tuesday.

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