New York – Cinderella almost continued its run towards college basketball relevance today, but not quite. St. Johns University, once among the titans of the sport but having fallen on hard times in recent years, had defeated Connecticut handily yesterday to move into the second round of the Big East Championships. They took a favored Marquette club right down to the wire before succumbing, 57-55. And now, the talk begins once again about the coaching status of St. Johns coach, Norm Roberts.
Roberts, now in his seventh year has been credited with getting his kids to play hard but the wins have still been hard to string together for the “little school from Queens,” as Roberts likes to describe the university. The questions about his job security have grown as his teams continue to be outclassed and out-recruited by other Big East schools.
Roberts is well aware of the buzz over whether St. Johns will offer him a new contract but he feels he’s gotten the program back on track. He took over a decimated program on the verge of NCAA penalty, is 60-76 overall and only 23-52 in Big East play. He said he spoke to Father Harrington, St. Johns’ President, as recently as about two weeks ago at a board of directors meeting and that the university president was 100-percent supportive.
“I feel better about my team than I ever have,” said Roberts. “We’ve taken major steps to getting better and we’re going to be pretty good next year. We just have to continue to grow.”
“I don’t think anybody could forsee six years up the road and tell where a program will be,” he said. “I think we’re further along than when I first got here. We were rock bottom playing in the best league in America. I think we’ve got a chance to be one of the better teams in the league next year.”
St. Johns, under legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, was able to hold onto kids like Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Walter Berry, Bill Wennington, Malik Sealy and many others who went on to productive NBA careers. Under Roberts, they have yet to produce an All-American or an NBA-caliber player.
“Everybody thinks that St. Johns got every New York City kid, they never did,” Roberts said. “I say this all the time and people don’t want to listen to it but it’s right. Ed Pinckney went to Villanova, we got Walter Berry. So nobody worried about Ed Pinckney going to Villanova. Kenny Smith went to North Carolina, we got Mark Jackson so nobody worried about Kenny Smith going to Carolina. Pearl Washington went to Syracuse.
“What we have to do is get the kid that fits us and then when we get him, we have to make him as good as he can possibly be. Then nobody will be asking those questions anymore. You can’t keep them here in NY just like you can’t keep all the great players in Chicago. The landscape of basketball is totally different than it was 20 years ago. With AAU basketball, by the time they’re 18, they’ve been to North Carolina and L.A. 15 times, so it’s no big deal. So for a kid to go there for college, it’s no big deal. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, and I know I’m dating myself, when someone would tell me to go to New Jersey, I would say I don’t know those people over there. I’m from NYC and I wanted to stay home. So, it’s a totally different landscape.”
Roberts does have the respect of his coaching bretheren in the Big East. After St. Johns blew out Jim Calhoun’s Connecticut team, Calhoun went public with his admiration for the job Roberts was doing. At the same time, the wily Calhoun had to know his public support for Roberts could have a positive affect on St. Johns’ decision-making when it comes to retaining Roberts.
After today’s game, Buzz Williams, Marquette’s head coach supported Roberts as well, at the post-game press conference.
“Coach Roberts doesn’t get the credit he’s deserving of for how hard his team plays,” said Williams. “Not that I’m old, but I always trust our players to tell me the truth about other players. If you were to ask our players who is the hardest playing team in the league, they would tell you St. Johns. I thought they were the hardest playing team today.”