With the Big Dance finally upon us, many articles on this site will focus on predictions and how to win your office pool. Since you'll probably be overwhelmed with such advice, this article will be the first in a series that explores programs that used to get in the Big Dance every year, have fallen on hard times, and what they can do to get their mojo back.
First up: St. John's.
In the 1980s, St. John's was a Big East powerhouse that already claimed Joe Lapchick and Dick McGuire as part of its legendary past. The program reached its zenith in 1985 as Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Mark Jackson, and Bill Wennington combined to lead the Redmen to the Final Four, aka the Big East Conference Tourney. Outside of Berry, a Player of the Year candidate, the other three players each played more than 10 seasons in the NBA.
The Redmen weren't quite as successful after '85 but continued to be a fixture on the national scene with Elite Eight appearances in 1991 and 1999. NBA players such as Ron Artest and Felipe Lopez continued the fine legacy of the program.
But, the Red Storm has been a weak drizzle since 2002, when they bowed out to Wisconsin in an eight-nine matchup in the first round of the NCAAs. This season, they finished a mediocre 16-17 overall and 6-12 in the Big East.
The Curse of the Cosby Sweater?
Louie Carnesecca was the leader of those storied teams and really didn't need to recruit outside of the Five Boroughs. He coached there for 24 years, won 526 games, had 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, six NIT appearances (and one title in 1989), and a veritable cornucopia of ugly sweaters.
When "Looie" retired in 1992, longtime assistant Brian Mahoney was promoted. Outside of the 1999 Elite Eight run, the Johnnies missed the Tournament more often than not.
This trend continued with such coaches as Mike Jarvis and Fran Fraschilla until they hit the bottom in 2004, when six players allegedly met a woman in a hotel room for sex and the team was whittled down to four scholarship players and four walk-ons. They finished 6-21 that season.
Can Norm the Storm Get It Back?
It was recently announced that Norm Roberts, who has been the coach since 2004, will be coming back for the 2009-10 campaign. Roberts has recruited well, and his team has shown signs of improvement.
But, an inspection of his 2006 recruiting class reveals there is still a ways to go. Eighty percent of those recruits left the program within a year, and Doug Wiggins, who gave a verbal commitment for that season, decided to go to UConn instead.
The big strength of previous recruiting classes was their talent and proximity to St. John's. This year's team does have three players from the New York metro area (Malik Boothe, Rob Thomas, and Justin Burrell). Most of their team is made of freshmen and sophomores.
Their biggest recruiting challenge is selling the program's history to the current NYC talent pool, which is very deep. However, Roberts was known as a great recruiter at St. John's and should be able to sell that more effectively with continued improvement, along with the opportunity to play in the Big East.
If nothing else, St. John's must improve their offense. They were near the bottom of the conference in all of the offensive categories, and they had 10 points in the first half of their most recent loss to Marquette.
St. John's has some work to do before they get back to being Tournament regulars. They need to land some top 50 recruits and convince the ones they do land to do the schoolwork necessary to stay eligible.
Already, there has been speculation about Roberts' job status, but this team needs stability, so he should stay as long as there is improvement. If they can continue to get better at the same pace, 20-win seasons should be attainable within the next two to three years.