St. John’s Starts On The Road To Big East Respectability
By Denis Gorman
Mythology is a funny thing.
How do fables, thousands of years old, have any relevance to our every day lives?
They don’t. They’re stories, nothing more, nothing less. Then, you come to a point where they define who and what you are. Just ask the St. John’s Red Storm.
With one game remaining this season, St. John’s is 9-17. They will not qualify for a post-season berth. Any other year, this might be considered a failure. For the Red Storm, it’s a rousing success.
Coming off a year in which the program fell to its lowest point, Norm Roberts has the Red Storm seemingly on the track-to-success; a Phoenix rising from the ashes of a 6-21 nightmare season. Twice this season, St. Johns pulled major upsets, defeating then-nationally ranked N.C. State 63-45 on December 30 th and then-No.14 Pittsburgh 65-62 on January 18th. The Red Storm has come close on other occasions, losing twice to West Virginia by five points total; losing by one at Notre Dame on January 15th and losing by 11 to Duke last Saturday (58-47).
That is the opposite of what happened last season. Instead of being competitive, St. John’s was a collection of mostly-mediocre individual players who seemed more interested in the status that came with being collegiate basketball players than winning games. And it showed. They lost in every way a team could lose. Head Coach Mike Jarvis was fired last December, days after Duke beat St. Johns, 79-58, in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and replaced by Kevin Clark, one of his assistants.
The change didn’t do much for the team, which lost 17 of its last 20 games and had several players involved in an ugly sex scandal in Pittsburgh. In the aftermath, one player (Grady Reynolds) was expelled and another (Elijah Ingram) transferred to another school. Senior Abe Keita, was not expelled from the school, but was removed from the team. Centers Lamont Hamilton and Mohammad Diakite were suspended for the season, and Tyler Jones was suspended for two games.
It was an ugly time to say you were from St. Johns; the school’s marketing slogan, “We are St. Johns,” was a bitter punch line.
“I don’t like to lose,” star guard Darryl Hill said Monday night. “It was tough. I was just trying to stay focused on the games (instead of the off-the-court incidents).”
St. John’s, the little Catholic school on the corner of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway, was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. They truly were the Icarus; they had crashed and burned.
After the season ended, the University conducted a search to find the best person to replace Jarvis. They settled on Roberts, a Queens native, who was working for Bill Self at the University of Kansas, and before that, at the University of Illinois. As Self’s lead recruiter, Deron Williams, Kyle Wilson, Aaron Spears (who transferred from Illinois to a junior college in Highland, Illinois) and Russell Robinson (Rice High School in Manhattan) to sign with the Jayhawks and Fighting Illini.
Roberts wasted little time restocking the seemingly bare St. John’s cupboard, in getting guard Ricky Torres (St. Raymond High School in the Bronx), small forward Anthony Mason Jr. (Fairley HS, in Memphis, Tennessee) and center Tomas Jasiulionis (Trinity Episcopal HS in Richmond, Virginia).
Spears, who transferred from Illinois, also signed a letter of intent with St. John’s and will be eligible to play next season It was as impressive a recruiting class St. John’s has had in years. The last class that could compare would be Jarvis’ first class, which boasted Omar Cook, Willie Shaw and Kyle Cuffe.
St. John’s fans hope that Robert’s first class is more successful than Jarvis’. In four years, they only qualified for post-season play twice (NCAA in 2001-02 and the NIT in 2002-03). Even more disturbing than the lack of success was the seemingly team-wide lack of control. Jarvis’ Johnnies found themselves in police lineups, rather than the starting lineup for infractions ranging from minor offenses (Marcus Hatten and Shaw were picked up for marijuana possession) to major ones (Grady Reynolds was charged with third degree assault and second-degree harassment after he attacked swimmer Rachel Seager. Reynolds accepted a deal to perform five days of community service and attend anger management classes).
One of the first things Roberts did was to gather the players who were on the 2003-04 Red Storm and made them a rather curious statement. He told them that he wouldn’t cast judgment on them for what happened in seasons past.
The kids, though, were still hesitant. For the better part of three years, the players had been criticized in print and over the airwaves. Once the season started, why would anything be different?
Before beating N.C. State, the consensus was that St. John’s played hard, but just weren’t very good. After December 30 th, that changed in the players’ minds. “We were playing teams hard,” Roberts said. “And it was coming across better (in their minds). We almost beat Not…….re Dame; they beat us on a buzzer shot. The kids thought we were (almost there).”
And now, they believe in each other and the direction Roberts has them in. Hill said that the program will qualify for the NCAA Tournament next year.
From an Icarus-like 6-21 in 2004 to a possible NCAA Tournament in 2006, the Phoenix just might be rising from the ashes.