Old friends and rivals Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing with renew their rivalry on Sunday in a critical Big East game at Madison Square Garden.
St. John's (15-4, 3-4) and Georgetown (12-7, 2-4) are both under .500 in league play and need to win some games if they're going to make a push toward the NCAA tournament. Typically, Big East teams need to finish at least 9-9 in league play to make the Big Dance.
"I'm looking forward to playing my old buddy Chris one more time," Ewing, the former Georgetown and Knicks legend and current Georgetown coach, said Thursday.
"I go way back with Patrick," Mullin said. "I've had a lot of different experiences with him. Playing with him, against him, and off the court. It's always great to see him and I have the utmost respect and admiration for him."
Since taking over at his alma mater last season, Ewing is 2-2 against Mullin, but St. John's won the most recent matchup on Jan. 5 when the Hoyas blew a four-point lead in the final 28 seconds and St. John's prevailed 97-94 in overtime behind 37 points from Shamorie Ponds. The win snapped a 13-game losing streak at Georgetown.
"We had an opportunity that we could've won the game last time we played, but mistakes," Ewing said. "And as all the coaches know, mistakes hurt you. And [we] made mistakes down the stretch up four and they were able to secure their victory."
The win improved St. John's to 14-1, but since then they have lost three of four, including Saturday's loss at Butler.
Now they face a virtual must-win game against the Hoyas.
"First and foremost, we've prepared for them," Mullin said of the Hoyas, who feature former Wings Academy big man Jessie Govan, who leads Big East play with 23 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. "They're a really good team. They score the ball. They're deep, long, and athletic so it's going to be a tough game. We've had close games with them and I know every game in the Big East is close."
Led by Ponds, the Big East preseason player of the year, St. John's entered the season picked fourth in the Big East and with high expectations of making the NCAA tournament.
In the latest ESPN bracketology released Friday, the Red Storm are a 10-seed in the Big Dance, with not much margin for error.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has St. John's as one of four Big East teams in the Big Dance, along with No. 12-ranked Marquette, No. 18 Villanova and Seton Hall, which visits Villanova on Sunday.
Currently, only two Big East teams have winning records in the league -- Villanova (6-0) and Marquette (6-1). Every other team has four losses.
- Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) January 24, 2019
St. John's will need to go at least 6-5 in their remaining 11 league games, or win the Big East tournament outright at Madison Square Garden in March. Their upcoming schedule is particularly tough.
After Georgetown, St. John's visits Creighton, No. 2 Duke and Marquette before returning to play home games with Providence, Butler and Villanova on Feb. 17. That gives it three ranked opponents that could make for big résumé wins.
"Each and every game is going to be important," Mullin said. "A bunch of teams are 3-4. Villanova and Marquette are at the top and then there are a bunch of teams that are together. At some point, there will have to be some separation. We're going to take it game-by-game and that's where our focus is."
A year ago, the Big East put six teams in the NCAA yournament. That probably won't happen this year, but Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski believes the Big East will ultimately land a handful of teams in the Dance.
"I think at the end in March, we're going to have great representation" in the NCAA tournament, he said.
If Mullin is going to make his first March Madness appearance as a coach, Sunday marks a virtual must-win game.