When Chris Mullin struggled with his outside shot earlier this season, St. John's basketball Coach Lou Carnesecca was far from worried.
"Even Joe DiMaggio had slumps," Carnesecca said, while Mullin was in the midst of shooting 39% from the field over a six-game stretch. "It'll come. Besides, he does so many other things."
Mullin brushed off talk of a slump.
"I'm not throwing the ball over the backboard and I feel good when I shoot. The shots just are not dropping," the 6-foot-6 senior swingman said at the time.
All kinds of reasons for Mullin's troubles were offered:
--Distractions from the media, where stories ranged from vehemently denied rumors of illegal payments for Redmen players to one profile that mocked Mullin's Brooklyn accent.
--The problem of working new players, like 6-8 junior college hotshot Walter Berry, into the St. John's system.
Picked as the No. 1 team in at least one preseason poll, St. John's survived early season scares against St. Bonaventure and Fordham and lost at Niagara.
"We're just not playing as good as we're capable of," Mullin said at one point.
Whatever the reasons, both Mullin and the Redmen have weathered the storm.
St. John's catapulted into the top spot in the rankings after its 66-65 Big East Conference victory over defending NCAA champion Georgetown Jan. 26, ending the Hoyas' 29-game winning streak. With Wednesday night's 77-60 victory over Providence, the Redmen were 16-1 overall and 8-0 atop the Big East.
And Mullin's left-handed shots, from the 15-to-20-foot range, have been falling with more accuracy since the Redmen won the Holiday Festival in December. In the process, Mullin, a self-styled gym rat, broke the all-time St. John's record of 1,826 points set by Bob Zawoluk from 1949-52.
Mullin, at home at either guard or forward, broke the renowned Georgetown press with his smart ballhandling. He got strong support from 7-0 Bill Wennington and Berry, who has emerged as an inside force. Mullin also sagged on defense to help Wennington contain All-American Patrick Ewing.
"He doesn't beat you with speed," Georgetown swingman Reggie Williams said of Mullin, who had a fine all-around game with eight rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots against the Hoyas. "He beats you with calm."
A perfect example came as the game neared its end.
After Michael Jackson's driving shot reduced a one-time 18-point Redmen margin to one point, Mullin let the clock tick off while he held the ball. He inbounded it with one second left, giving the Hoyas no chance for another shot.
"You do that on purpose?" a sports writer asked him.
"Oh, yeah," Mullin said matter-of-factly with a smile. "I knew the clock was running."
"He's another coach out there," said Carnesecca, who had wooed Mullin since his star was in grade school. Carnesecca beat out Duke and Virginia in the long run, selling Mullin on staying home at the Queens school that has no dormitories.
Through the victory over Providence, Mullin had 2,048 career points and was leading the Redmen with a 17.8 scoring average. He was third in rebounding with a 5.1 average, first in assists at 3.9 per game and first in steals with 41.
He plays the entire game, too. Carnesecca rarely rests Mullin unless the game is out of reach.
"The only thing wrong with Mullin that I can see is that he doesn't shoot enough," said Frank McGuire, the former college and pro coach who now is the head of college basketball at Madison Square Garden. "But they'll set more screens for him in the pros and he'll get his shots."
Dick McGuire, the New York Knicks' chief scout and a former St. John's star, has high praise for Mullin's shooting, passing and ability to get free.
"They say he's a step slow," McGuire said, "but I've never seen anybody blow by him. I'm not saying he's going to turn around a franchise, but he's going to play in the NBA for 10 years.
"And he's a gym rat. This guy can't get enough. Everybody says, 'Stop Mullin and you stop St John's.' No one has done that yet."