The storyline is obvious. Former Big East rivals and college basketball playing icons Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin meet Tuesday night for the first time as head coaches of their respective Alma mater.
The location, Madison Square Garden where Ewing called home for most of his legendary NBA career with the New York Knicks. National spotlight, bring it.
Once upon a time, the idea of Georgetown vs. St. John’s, Ewing against Mullin meant must-see TV. It meant battles for Big East titles. In 1985 it meant a spot in the national championship game. These are among the reasons why college basketball fans of a certain age will likely tune into for Tuesday’s matchup.
One look at the current Big East standings reveals why the interest nationally is not universal. Georgetown (11-4, 1-3) is coming off a 24-point home loss to Creighton and coming back down to earth after running wild against overmatched non-conference foes. At least the Hoyas have a Big East win. St. John’s (10-6, 0-4) does not.
Those records combined with recent struggles in previous seasons -- and a 6:30 p.m. start time -- suggest these programs are not currently suited for primetime. That is the beauty of Ewing vs. Mullin. The fan bases and a national audience can spend Tuesday reliving fantastic memories. Right now, that’s the good stuff with these programs.
That is why, along with the universities offering head gigs to former players with zero head coaching experience, Ewing and Mullin returned to their schools. To help restore Georgetown and St. John’s back to Big East and national prominence.
For now, Ewing is simply focused on the next game. Tuesday’s office just happens to be at the arena he called home for 15 NBA seasons.
I made Patrick Ewing laugh. Career highlight.
On his return to MSG. Georgetown at St. John's tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/QPX53NEHHY
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) January 8, 2018
“It’s always good to be back (at Madison Square Garden). I spent a large part of my life there. Running up and down that court. Blood, sweat and tears. I have to tell Chris that’s my home, my house,” Ewing joked Monday morning on the Georgetown campus.
He certainly is not thinking about the glory days.
“I’m just worried about going against St. John’s the team,” Ewing said. “Chris and I are very good friends, but right now all I am concerned about is trying to get a win, just like him. … We’re both trying to get our teams on track.”
When Ewing and Mullin played getting back on track typically meant snapping a modest losing streak or rejoining the national championship conversation. The Hoyas reached the title game three times with Ewing, winning it all in 1984. The 1985 final appearance came immediately after defeating Mullin and St. John’s.
That same year that the 7-foot Ewing and Mullin shared Big East Player of the Year honors as seniors. Yes, kids, stars stayed in school back then. Mullin, a renowned perimeter threat, won the award three times, Ewing, twice.
In their era, there were no more celebrated players than these two. Now both are more curiosities than kings.
Following a 16-year pro career, Mullin largely worked in NBA front offices. In 2015, he took over a St. John’s program that had one NCAA Tournament victory since 2000. The Red Storm have made recruiting strides under Mullin, but are 32-49 overall and are the only winless Big East team this season in conference play.
Georgetown continued serving among the Big East heavyweights for most of the 32 years since Ewing’s playing days. The last two campaigns, not so much. Back-to-back losing seasons led to a coaching change and Ewing’s return.
The turnaround will take time. Ewing seemingly recognizes this reality.
The matchup against a team with Creighton’s offensive potency is the type coach's lean on their best players. Not Ewing. Big men Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson, who Ewing said was not at full strength, never found a rhythm and played fewer minutes than normal.
This ploy was not random. Ewing was sending a message. For a successful season, he needs more from his leading men.
“This is my first year here, and I’m trying to change the culture,” Ewing said.
Video of Ewing’s in-game honesty over Derrickson’s shot selection during the lone conference win at DePaul went viral. This is where Ewing’s focus is these days, coaching, now.
The 55-year-old spent years as an NBA assistant in the hopes of landing a head coaching job. His Alma mater helped make that dream come true.
Ewing aims to rebuild the program he helped make a national brand. A win over his former rival defines small step, but at least forward. Both Ewing and Mullin will need plenty of W’s to go from curiosities to coaching kings, to have the spotlight aimed at the present without focusing so much on past glories.
For the rest of us, revel in another Ewing vs. Mullin showdown. For now, it's all we have.