With the days of Chris Mullin and Walter Berry just a fading, distant memory, most St. John's fans would probably settle for Boo Harvey and Shawnelle Scott at this point. Yet, there is reason to be optimistic in Queens this season. Coming off of a 16-18 season, which culminated in a loss to Richmond in the CBI Tournament, the Red Storm return all of the major pieces from last year's squad.
In what is likely Norm Roberts' last chance to continue collecting paychecks as the head coach of St. John's, the Storm returns over 95% of their scoring and rebounding from a season ago. The only losses from the 08-09 team were little used guard Tyshawn Edmondson and Tomas Jasiulionis, a 6'11" center who probably had the word 'Project' tattooed somewhere on his body.
The table is set for a successful run this season. A challenging non-conference schedule (one that includes Duke, Temple, and Siena) and another daunting Big East slate poses major challenges for the Storm. However, this team isn't built like any other team during the Roberts era. Specifically, there are five reasons why the Red Storm can realistically make the NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced in March:
1. Anthony Mason returns to the fold. Nothing could have given the Storm more hope than the news that the NCAA granted Anthony Mason another year of eligibility after suffering a tendon tear in his foot during the third game of last season. In Mason, St. John's has one of the Big East's most complete players. The fifth-year senior swingman gives the Storm a go-to scorer, a necessary commodity for postseason play.
2. The Big East takes a step back. Make no mistake, the Big East conference is going to be an arduous road to travel. Last year's top ranked conference produced seven NCAA Tournament teams (comprising three number one seeds, five teams in the Sweet 16, three in the Elite 8, and half of the Final Four). Nonetheless, the conference lost a significant amount of talent to graduations and last June's NBA Draft.
- UConn lost national Defensive Player of the Year, and No. 2 overall draft pick, Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien. The Huskies only return two starters, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson. Jim Calhoun will have to rely on untested youngsters to finish in the top half of the league.
- Syracuse no longer has the services of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. That's 55% of the Orange's scoring from last year. The backcourt will be one of the least experienced in the Big East.
- Marquette lost six of its top seven players. The only notable player back from last year's tournament squad is Lazar Hayward. Coach Buzz Williams will have his work cut out for him.
- Louisville's Earl Clark and Terrence Williams left the Bluegrass State for professional riches. The Cardinals will look to their backcourt, led by Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, to lead the 'Ville back to the postseason.
- Jamie Dixon probably suffered the largest impact, as Pittsburgh must replace the play of Sam Young, DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs -- four starters from last year's Elite 8 squad. The Panthers will struggle to score points all season.
Villanova and West Virginia appear to be the heavy favorites to win the Big East this season. WVU returns four starters from last year squad, featuring preseason All-American Devin Ebanks. Da'Sean Butler is back for his senior year and is joined guards Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant. Nova, who did lose its entire frontcourt, brings back plenty in the backcourt. Led by senior Scottie Reynolds, the Wildcats will once again challenge for the conference title.
Aside from Villanova and West Virginia, and possibly Georgetown, the rest of the conference is an unpredictable lineup of talented underclassmen, lacking in experience. With the Big East as a whole taking a step back this season, it opens up opportunities for some of the league's less acclaimed programs.
3. Continued development in the backcourt. One of the positives of Mason's injury was the development of the Red Storm guards. Paris Horne led the Storm in scoring, with just under 15 points a game. Junior point guard Malik Boothe show flashes of brilliance last year, leading the team in assists. For SJU to enjoy a successful season, Horne will need to improve his three-point shooting (only 34% last season) and overall shot selection. Boothe, who is not an outside threat, simply needs to make better decisions with the ball. He led the Storm with 75 turnovers last season.
4. Depth and experience. The Storm return the nucleus of last season's squad. With Mason's return, Norm Roberts essentially has six starters back for the 09-10 season. Roberts has the option of playing two of the league's better wingman, Mason and D.J. Kennedy at the same time. Kennedy was impressive last season, averaging 13 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per contest. Junior Sean Evans will play a large supporting role for the Storm, as will forwards Justin Burrell and Rob Thomas. St. John's returns nine players that logged more than 10 minutes a game last year, the most in the Big East.
5. Favorable conference schedule. The Storm's Big East slate offers the usual challenges. However, a closer examination reveals some fortunate matchups for the Storm. SJU gets the two conference front-runners at MSG, as Villanova comes to the Garden on January 23rd and West Virginia visits February 6th. Additionally, St. John's gets two chances to play DePaul, who was winless in Big East play last season. Lastly, half of their nine conference road games are against teams expected to finish in the bottom half of the league: the aforementioned DePaul Blue Demons, Pittsburgh, South Florida and Rutgers. Given the way the schedule is set, it is realistic to expect the Storm to win 8-10 conference games this season -- certainly enough to make an NCAA Tournament bid possible.