The rebuilding may finally be paying off.
Having disappointed fans in recent years, the St. John’s men’s basketball team hopes to finally begin its turnaround season in 2006-07. Just missing out of the Big East Tournament with a 13th place finish, the Red Storm certainly did not live up to the expectations of a school-and a city-that prides itself on basketball.
One of the main reasons for the failures was this: they simply could not score. Second to last in points per game (60), second to last in field goal percentage (.414), and dead last in 3-point field goal percentage (.266) just doesn’t cut it.
Coach Norm Roberts is known to stress a hard-nosed, defense-oriented approach. “The bottom line is if the other team can’t score, they can’t win no matter how bad you shoot it or how bad you play,” he said.
And while that is certainly true, last year’s Storm was “the other team.” St. John’s may have been too dependent on holding the opposition down. That’s why, for the second recruiting class of his tenure, Roberts looked for more athletic and versatile players.
In the backcourt, Avery Patterson, a junior transfer from Iowa Western C.C., looks to make a big impact. Known for his perimeter shooting, he addresses an area of need for this team. “Avery Patterson really helps us tremendously from the perimeter with his ability to shoot the ball and shoot it from deep,” Roberts said.
He showed off that talent in the Red Storm’s very first game, nailing a school record eight of 14 threes. To put that in perspective, that is more than the whole team had in any full game last season.
“I want to help put St. John’s back to where they used to be,” Patterson said.
He joins new team captain Eugene Lawrence and senior Daryll Hill as possible big backcourt scorers.
Lawrence, who finished fourth in the Big East with 4.9 assists per game, feels he can be a big leader on the court this year.”I think I’ve progressed a lot,” the 6-1 junior said. “My shooting got better during the last two years and my skills as a leader, on and off the court, have improved.”
Hill, who battled through knee injuries last season, appears to be fully healed and ready to help the team in any way he can.
“We have a lot of shooters, more scorers, so now I can show my point guard role instead of scoring as much,” he said.
Returning at small forward is Anthony Mason, Jr. The standout sophomore averaged 8.4 points per game last season as a freshman and only got better over the summer. Playing in a league with other northeastern NCAA players in Honolulu, he led his team to a 7-0 record and averaged 18.3 points.
“He’s improved his overall aggressiveness,” Roberts said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more success out of him.”
Joining him is freshman forward Qa’rraan Calhoun. He can knock down the three, but it’s his athleticism that Roberts enjoys. It creates versatility at forward, something the Red Storm needs.
“I just want to be a junkyard dog right now,” Calhoun said. “Go in and do whatever it takes to help the team win some games.”
Expected to be an all-around contributor when he came to St. John’s, freshman Derwin Kitchen is sitting out for an undetermined period of time because of academic reasons.
“If I’m sitting the whole game or if I’m playing the whole game, as long as I’m winning, I’m going to be happy,” he said.
In the front, St. John’s big man Lamont Hamilton takes care of the paint. Coming off his junior year, in which he led the Storm in scoring (12.6) and rebounding (7.6), “Monty” is looking to have his best season to date.
“Hamilton has really improved his game and has been very consistent throughout practice,” Roberts said.
Returning sophomore and local product Ricky Torres agreed that Hamilton is poised to have another big year.
“Lamont Hamilton worked on his body,” Torres said. “He’s much stronger than last year.”
“I think I’m much better,” Hamilton agreed. “I’ve gotten much stronger, faster, smarter, and more patient.”
He is joined by fellow senior Aaron Spears, a player that Roberts described as having “been through the wars.”
Averaging 7.2 points last season, Spears looks to be a significant contributor on this year’s team as well.
Sophomore Tomas Jasiulionis continues to develop his game and figures to get more playing time this year while freshman recruit Rob Thomas is unavailable until 2008.
St. John’s was picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll. While it would be a marked improvement, the players view it more as a challenge to surpass.
“We know we’re capable of finishing higher then ninth,” Kitchen said. “For them to pick us ninth, it means they don’t show too much respect. We’ve just got to work hard every day and prove people wrong about us.”
Roberts, meanwhile, decided to ignore the polls. “The preseason polls mean absolutely nothing,” he said. “It’s a matter of what you do on the court.”
Another thing he’s not giving too much credence to is playing time. He won’t even set a starting five.
“Hopefully we’re going to be able to play nine or 10 guys and get a good rotation going,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to tell our guys is nothing matters to me more than St. John’s winning and if that’s not what’s in your head then you’re in the wrong place.”
It might mean less minutes for the big names but Roberts feels that this year’s team has the chemistry and the depth to afford it. Is this finally the turnaround year for Roberts and the program?
“I hope so,” the third-year coach said. “I don’t know if we targeted this year as being ‘the’ year. College basketball changes so quickly, but I do think this is the first year we have returning guys that have been through the wars and we feel we have as much talent as other people in our league.”
Roberts knows that winning does not just suddenly happen. “You can’t just bring in good players and think you’re going to be good,” he said. “You’ve got to have good chemistry and guys have got to understand strengths and weaknesses.”
So far, it appears as if the strengths are returning and the weaknesses are being addressed. It appears that, finally, St. John’s is once again on the upswing.
Perhaps Calhoun summed it up best: “It’s going to be a different story this year, you can tell.”