Norm Roberts understands that his hiring as head coach at St. John's is one of those good news/bad news deals. The good news is that Roberts, 39, finally has a Division I program to call his own after a career spent mostly as an assistant. The bad news is that he got the job in large part because St. John's is in ruins.
"I know it's going to take time to get things turned around, especially if you're going to do it right -- which we're going to do," said Roberts, the 18th head coach in the program's tradition-rich history. "Anything you build is only as strong as the foundation it's built on, and we're going to start with a good foundation, showing people how we do things, how we're going to recruit, how we're going to play."
The Red Storm returns just four scholarship players from the worst season in school history, a 6-21 campaign that was rocked by a sex scandal, suspensions and the mid-December dismissal of head coach Mike Jarvis. St. John's played its final eight games with four scholarship players and four walk-ons as the program plummeted to the lowest point in its history.
Enter Roberts, a New York native who spent last season as the associate head coach at Kansas. He's young, energetic, knows New York City, is well-connected and seems determined to restore the luster to St. John's tarnished reputation. He wasted little time after his spring hiring, bringing in five recruits -- three freshmen, two junior college transfers -- with the modest goal of returning the Red Storm to respectability in his first year.
FRONTCOURTSophomore Lamont Hamilton will probably nail down one of the starting frontcourt spots after starting just four games in a disappointing debut season that saw him average 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game. At 6-foot-9, 242, he brings size to a team that sorely lacks it.
Tyler Jones, a sophomore who started three games last year, and 6-10 Mohamed Diakite, a fifth-year senior, are the only frontcourt holdovers. Neither has proven to be starter-ready; Diakite averaged just 6.4 minutes per game last season.
Three new forwards, two of them junior college transfers, will help immediately. Rodney Epperson, who averaged 17 points at Midland (Texas) Junior College last year, and Ryan Williams, a rugged small forward by way of Monroe (N.Y.) Community College, should fortify the frontcourt. Both are Queens natives returning home. Williams was at St. John's last year but redshirted.
Freshman Dexter Gray will also be force-fed minutes early.
"Dexter is a tough kid. He gets a lot done," Roberts said.
BACKCOURTSophomore guard Daryll Hill, the lone bright spot from last year, will look to pick up where he left off after averaging 23.4 points over the final seven games. Hill, nicknamed "Showtime," flirted with the NBA Draft but wisely opted to return to college. He averaged a team-leading 14.8 points last season, topped the 20-point mark eight times and scored in double figures in 20 of 27 games.
Hill will again run the point, with support coming from three first-year players -- Jermaine Maybank, Cedric Jackson and Eugene Lawrence.
Roberts expects Maybank, a junior college transfer, to help immediately. Jackson averaged 26 points as a high school senior last year and should get an opportunity to play quality minutes at off guard.
Lawrence, a late signee, is a sturdy 6-1, 190-pound freshman who will spell Hill at the point. He considered attending prep school before being convinced by Roberts that he had an opportunity to contribute immediately at St. John's.
FINAL ANALYSISThe addition of six new players -- three of them junior college transfers -- and the return of Hill should mean the Red Storm will be more competitive this year. But rebuilding St. John's "is a process," Roberts said, and it's one that is just starting.
Roberts' energy and personality should have St. John's fans feeling a little better about their situation. But the upcoming season will not be pretty. The best the Red Storm can hope to do is flirt with a .500 record.