DAYTON, Ohio -- St. John's begins its first NCAA tournament under Chris Mullin this week in hopes of giving the head coach at least a few more days of distraction from the recent death of his older brother.
Mullin and the Red Storm snagged the final at-large spot in the field of 68, giving the fourth-year coach his first trip to the tournament since returning to his alma mater in 2015. That milestone comes on the heels of a low point in his life. Rod Mullin, Chris' older brother and role model, died after a battle with cancer less than two weeks ago. Chris' players said Tuesday they've seen another level of toughness out of Mullin during the past week.
"For him to still want to be a part of this and want to be around us during that time means a lot," senior Marvin Clark II said Monday. "[It] shows us how much he loves us and shows how much he loves this program."
Mullin attended his brother's funeral one day before his team defeated DePaul in the Big East tournament. That win snapped a three-game losing streak that had pushed the Red Storm to the back edge of the tournament bubble teams. Clark said the St. John's players have tried to show respect for Mullin by keeping their conversations focused on basketball as much as possible.
"That's what he wants," Clark said. "He doesn't want to think about it. For me, I wouldn't want to think about losing my brother at all. I would just want to think about putting the ball in the net, being around my guys. That's what we've embodied, and that's the way we're going to carry ourselves and try to make sure that basketball is the outlet for him."
St. John's can keep that outlet going for at least a couple of more days with a win against Arizona State in Wednesday night's First Four play-in game in Dayton. The matchup pits Mullin -- a Hall of Famer during his playing career -- against another former standout player-turned-head coach, Bobby Hurley.
Hurley, who grew up in a basketball family in New Jersey not too far from where Mullin was helping St. John's to a Final Four appearance in 1985, said it was "heartbreaking" to hear about Mullin's brother.
"Chris is strong, and he's been through a lot," Hurley said. "I think he's got the leadership and I think he knows that as bad as he might feel and what he's going through that he owes it to the kids that he coaches to get his team ready and get him to enjoy this moment."
St. John's and Arizona State tip off at approximately 9:10 p.m. ET Wednesday night. The winner will advance to play Buffalo in Tulsa on Friday afternoon.