Norm Roberts knows he doesn’t have the best talent, the most depth or the greatest playmakers.
The second-year St. John’s coach realized from that day in April 2004, when he stepped into the President’s Room of Carnesecca Arena to address the media, that his first few seasons with the Red Storm were going to be a tedious rebuilding process.
That might be why he has taken a philosophy this season that is utilized by a coach famous for restructuring, and thriving with, downtrodden teams – first-year Knicks coach Larry Brown.
“It’s a very different mentality,” Roberts said. “[With the Knicks], they said it’s not about making the big shot, it’s about making the big stop and that’s different from the Knicks in the past and that is true. You cannot control the ball going in the hole, but you can control defending and rebounding and playing unselfish.”
And that is exactly what Roberts’ 2005-06 Red Storm will have to do. The team doesn’t have the offensive firepower to stick with Connecticut, Syracuse or conference newbie Louisville. The Big East wins St. John’s will get this year will be earned with defense, rebounding and hard work.
Obviously, one of the most used sports cliches is “defense wins championships.” There won’t be any championships to be won this season for the Red Storm, but defense is still going to get the team where it needs to go: the next step in a return to prominence. This is not to say that St. John’s has not improved offensively from last year’s 9-18 campaign. It certainly is.
Juniors Daryll Hill (the Big East’s top returning scorer from last season with 20.7 points per game) and Lamont Hamilton both have a year of Roberts’ coaching under their belts and there’s no reason why they should not improve on both ends of the floor.
But those two were not the problems last season. Depth and experience were.
Eugene Lawrence, Dexter Gray and Cedric Jackson played major minutes for Roberts last season as freshmen.
All three of the sophs will surely benefit from getting thrown into the fire in their first year when St. John’s only had eight scholarship players.
“Eight guys knew they were going to play [last season],” Roberts said. “They knew it. They could’ve played bad – it didn’t matter. They were going to be out there. And the other five weren’t going to play. And they were going to cheer and have a good time. Well, this year, we’ve got 12 guys who all think they should start, who all think they should play.”
Jackson is a player who has surprised Roberts in the preseason with the strides he has made after playing for most of last season.
“The guy that has improved the most over the summer from where he was is probably Cedric Jackson,” Roberts said. “Cedric was injured a lot of last year and he’s healthy now. He brings a ton of energy. I think he is understanding his role better because he didn’t know what his role was going to be last year. We need Cedric to be a creator for others. We need Cedric to be a defensive demon. We need him to be an energy guy in transition and I think he’s understanding that role.”
The biggest problem St. John’s had in 2004-05 was getting worn down. Many times the team stuck with its opponents until the end of games, but it didn’t have fresh enough legs to go the distance in many contests.
“They’ve all improved their games and so that just adds more depth to our team,” Roberts said. “They understand that they had to play 35, 36 minutes a game. And a lot of times teams wore us down, by the last five minutes we were gasping for air. Hopefully this year that won’t be the case. Maybe we can wear some other people down.”
Roles are a thing that will have to be well thought out by Roberts. The starting lineup at the begining is probably going to be Hill, Hamilton, Lawrence, and two newcomers: freshman Anthony Mason Jr,. (son of the former Knick), and junior-college transfer Aaron Spears.
The presence of the talented Mason and the 6-foot-11, 256-pound Spears – as well as sweet-shooting freshman guard Ricky Torres – will give Roberts a problem he wished he had last year: too many players for not enough minutes. Redshirt junior Jermaine Maybank is also back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
Most of the time, the coach will decide who to play based on match ups, who has the hot hand, and who is working the hardest.
“It’s a matter of us having good chemistry and guys understanding their roles, their role for the team,” Roberts said. “What’s good for the team is good for everybody. The bottom line is if St. John’s wins, the bottom line is not if you play a certain amount of minutes. Our guys, I believe, understand that, but it’s going be something we’re going to go through and hopefully it’ll help us bond together more as a team.”
Added Hill: “Right now we’re just working on our chemistry. Once we get that down, we’ll be good because everyone plays hard on this team.”
And they’ll be playing hard against a more diverse array of opponents in the new Big East with the additions of Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida. The five new teams, formerly of Conference USA, make the Big East easily the best in the country.
Louisville, a Final Four team last season, and Cincinnati are perennial powerhouses; DePaul and South Florida are up-and-coming teams; and Marquette is certainly no slouch either.
When you add those schools to a conference that already has UConn (No. 3), Villanova (No. 5), West Virginia (No. 14) and Syracuse (No. 16), it could get a little dicey for a team that isn’t quite ready to challenge the big boys. Still, Roberts is not really deterred by the new faces.
“I don’t know how much tougher it makes [the conference],” Roberts said. “It remains to be seen. You were going to play tough games anyway. All you’re substituting is playing Syracuse twice for playing Cincinnati once. It’s going to be a hard game anyway. What makes the league so good is the versatility, different styles of play, great coaching. One night you could be going against a 2-3 zone, the next night you can be going against pressing. Tonight you could be going against 1-3-1. So coaches need to be on their p’s and q’s. You’re going to have to coach every game. It’s great for our league. It’s great talent. If you’re going to be the best you got to play the best.”
All of this might seem a little imposing for a second-year coach who took over the carcass of a program that Mike Jarvis mangled with neglect.
But Roberts, kind of like Larry Brown, is not the type of man to feel sorry for himself. He knows he can’t just snap his fingers and make St. John’s a Big East and national contender again.
He’s well aware that a few raspy screams emanating from his voice box won’t heal the programs’ wounds overnight.
He just needs to get back to basics: emphasizing rebounding, preaching hard work, getting that key stop.
Maybe he could teach the kids a little about what it’s like making it to the Big Dance too – something Roberts did often when he was with Illinois and Kansas.
“These guys don’t know what it’s like to be in the NCAA Tournament,” the coach said. “They have no clue.”
That’s definitely something he’s looking to change.