The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Torch Photo / Olivia Rainson
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Dreams and expectations grow in year two

 

A dreary Tuesday never changed direction so swiftly.

For the 100 or so privileged spectators, including this lucky sportswriter, those eight words best describe what occurred in an anxious, crowded room in the then-named Alumni Hall on April 13, 2004.

What started as a gloomy day that resembled a recurring theme of dreariness during and after the 2003-04 season for the men’s basketball team, changed faster than it takes you to hit traffic on the Long Island Expressway. As Norm Roberts approached the podium to deliver his first speech as the 18th coach in the program’s history, nobody quite knew what to expect.

Well, no one except Roberts.

Roberts, known for his master recruiting skills in seven impressive seasons as one of Bill Self’s top assistants in stints at Kansas, Illinois, Tulsa and Oral Roberts, had been waiting his whole life for this day. St. John’s wasn’t waiting a lifetime; it only seemed that way.

It was a perfect match. Love at first sight. Roberts called it his dream job. The feeling of want was mutual, only St. John’s needed the Queens native more than he thought he needed St. John’s.

It’s been over 19 months – 596 days to be exact if you’re wisely reading this on its publication date – since Roberts took a deep breath before delivering an unforgettable speech filled with emotion.

Other than the tears he had trouble fighting back, it’s hard to determine what stood out most.

You be the judge.

√¢?¢ “People have to start feeling good again about St. John’s.”

√¢?¢ “I think the city feels better when St. John’s is winning.”

√¢?¢ “It pains me to see guys from New York wearing other uniforms … Guys winning national championships who should be playing at St. John’s.”

√¢?¢ “I guarantee you there won’t be one kid from New York able to say St. John’s didn’t bust their tails recruiting them. The main thing is to change the mindset within our program. Then we’ll have to change the mindset in the community.”

√¢?¢ “What we need to do is get back to the identity of winning. This is one of the top-10 winningest programs in America and we’ve got to get it right back there, and I believe we can.”

√¢?¢ “It’s not going to be easy at all but it’s so much fun. The battle, the competition, that’s what makes it fun.”

Is it getting warm in here?

Everything the Queens College graduate said that day we agree with. But maybe the least emotional and most unremarkable statement is the last of the bunch, the one that should be addressed as Norm and Co. have tipped off Season 2.

You know what Norm? You’re right. It’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy. Not in New York. Not in the Big East. Expectations here are like a never-ending stack of 7-foot centers.

With the conference adding five new programs – Final Four participant Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida – to an already deep list that includes powers such as Connecticut, Villanova and Syracuse, there’s no such thing as an easy game on this year’s schedule.

Many argue that St. John’s is still in a rebuilding phase and that now is a time to be patient. OK, we get that part. But that doesn’t mean we can’t expect another dramatic improvement like the one we witnessed last season, when a young group that consisted of just eight scholarship players fought to the finish in nearly every contest.

Two-thirds of its losses were by 10 points or less, a statistic that earned Roberts and the team respectability from around the country. If not for some poor free-throw shooting, defensive breakdowns or late-game mishaps, St. John’s was a .500 team, not 9-18. Jim Calhoun, the coach of the hated Huskies, campaigned for Roberts as Big East coach of the year. Now that’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

With four more scholarship players on the roster this season, we agree with the Big East coaches that voted St. John’s 10th out of the 16 representatives in the preseason poll. Why shouldn’t they be that high? Joining preseason All-Big East Team selection Daryll Hill and Lamont Hamilton are top newcomers Ricky Torres, Anthony Mason Jr., and Aaron Spears. Athleticism, speed, hustle and enthusiasm are four traits Roberts shouldn’t have to stress too often this season.

St. John’s is young, but with its deeper roster comes more talent, something that Roberts feels will lead to more success.

Speaking to reporters on Media Day, Roberts said he believed 2003-2004 was “a mirage for St. John’s,” and that the program “is never going to be limited to that amount of talent, that amount of players ever again in the history of the school.”

Addressing this season, he added, “The biggest key is that we are going to be able to play in different ways. Last year we only had eight scholarship guys so there was only going to be one way we were going to play…This year we’re going to have a lot more options. I think that will be better for us and hopefully what will turn out to be more successful as well.”

It’s obvious that St. John’s is on the right track. The players appear to be just as hungry and focused as the coaching staff. While there’s no doubt that Roberts will continually produce strong recruiting classes in years to come, season two is the most significant. All the positive vibes that surrounded season one should be a constant reminder in 2005-06.

Big East titles and Sweet 16 appearances won’t happen overnight, but Roberts and his assistants have a strong handle on what is needed to be invited to the big end-of-the-year bashes.

A 16-10 record is the prediction here. And we’ll go one further: A Big East Tournament win. Maybe even an NIT bid. Stranger things have happened.

Last year, because of self-imposed sanctions stemming from its investigation into allegations of illegal activity during the Mike Jarvis Error, St. John’s was ineligible for postseason play and as a result did not participate in the Big East Tournament. Not playing at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the conference’s 25th anniversary was hands down the lowest point for a program so rich with tradition.

That’s the past. And thanks to Roberts, the present has never been so neatly wrapped. The future is as promising as ever, which is why it’s so important that St. John’s establishes itself as a winning program this season.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. Look where it got Roberts.

____________________________________________________________

Joseph Manniello, who graduated from St. John’s this past May, covers high school and college sports for Newsday. As sports editor of The Torch his junior year, he covered the men’s basketball team during the infamous sex scandal, arguably the program’s worst season ever.

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