Pico over at the fantastic blog, The East Coast Bias, asked for my participation in a brief Q&A before the Pitt / St. John's game. Below are his answers to my questions - be sure to check out his site for my answers to his:
1. I saw a bit of that St. John's / Villanova game on Saturday and was surprised by the number of Nova fans at the game, even with the fairly close proximity of the two teams. We all know that St. John's has a strong basketball history, but being down for a while, just how strong of a brand is St. John's basketball in the NYC area? With all the professional teams nearby, I'm sure they take somewhat of a backseat, but just how much?
That's certainly not abnormal, the numbers of opposing fans in the Garden. Pitt draws well there, Duke draws well there, Kentucky draws well there, U Conn draws well there - a lot of fans move to the NYC area. Recently, Rick Pitino said in his pregame chat with reporters before the St. John's game that the Big East didn't need St. John's to be good for the league to be strong; he could have extended that statement to "Madison Square Garden doesn't need St. John's to be good to sell tickets." And the Garden has no real allegiance; they just need to make their projected gate receipts.
The question about the Red Storm (or Redmen, as some prefer) and the strength of the brand is hotly debated among some fans. Is it just the losing that causes problems in filling the arena? Or is it that NYC isn't a college basketball city? Or is it the competition for ticket money?
But U Conn fans can fill the Garden because they win. Duke can get a good crowd going. And basketball tickets for college are much more affordable than pro tickets or football tickets. The pro teams are nice, but they're also not that good - especially when talking about basketball. There are a generation of people in their 20's and even early 30's whose memory of a rocking Garden and a relevant St. John's is at the edges of their 10th year, or in little spurts. Losing and a lack of fan memory doesn't do much to build a brand. And while I think the Garden will always draw a bipartisan crowd, NY is filled with basketball fans; a game there doesn't have to feel like an away game for the Red Storm.
2. St. John's is just now getting Anthony Mason, Jr. back in game shape after his injury and as expected, his minutes have been down a bit as the coaches are working him back in slowly. I've been kind of a fan of his during his career as he's a legitimate inside and outside player with the ability to hit the three (even though he's a bit streaky from out there). What kind of impact is he expected to make to the team once he gets back to full strength?
It's hard to say for certain what impact he'll make. There aren't strong expectations - he's been off of the grid for a year and a half, almost. And being out that long has to indicate a serious athletic issue. Certainly, he looks bigger, but Mase hasn't displayed the athleticism that the coaching staff wanted him to use more often to drive 2 years ago before he started having recurring hamstring injuries. But he's been more under control and rebounding very well in his time back. But the team could use another player who can score and create his shot when the droughts happen, when the team is out of rhythm. Can he be that? I'm not sure. Is he good enough to carry the team? Not sure on that, but I would think that's doubtful. But I'd love to see him try.
3. At 12-7, St. John's is off to one of its better starts since the 2001-02 season when they last made the NCAA Tournament. With a tough schedule still to come, while a tournament run is not likely this year, it's not impossible. The decent showing against Nova was probably slightly encouraging. What will St. John's need to do to make a run at the tournament or make a strong run in the NIT?
The showing against Nova looked like the showing against Georgetown, and the first half against U Conn. It doesn't feel strong, it feels like the same old thing - sloppy/ non-impact pay at the point, perimeter-focused play, midgame droughts... Some will say the team has a problem with second halves with respect to coaching, but I think slightly differently; the coaching and halftime adjustments are a factor, but so is the wearing down of talent. St. John's makes mistakes, and by the second half, the other team can exploit those mistakes and weaknesses.
To make a run at the tourney or the NIT... hmm. I think the team has to make a sudden turnaround in offense, scoring more regularly, drawing fouls. I think Dwight Hardy would have to start and put up 15 points per game; I think some player has to become an 8-10 point per game scorer in the paint and then the team has to get him the ball regularly; I think the team has to get something out of the point guards; I think the perimeter defense needs to improve. Perhaps Omari Lawrence will be as good as he was against Villanova; maybe Dele Coker would get more time. Maybe Justin Burrell will see the floor more and be a consistent scorer; maybe Justin Brownlee will do the same. There's a lot to overcome to get to either of those milestones
4. With only one winning season (16-15 in 2006-07) at St. John's in the five years he's served as coach, what are the thoughts on Norm Roberts around the area? If he doesn't get to above .500 this year, is he in any danger of losing his job? If so, or even if not, who are some coaching candidates that have been thrown around by media or even by fans?
The newspaper coverage - like in most places - won't go hard after Coach Norm Roberts, but even the local media know that the fans are frustrated, that it's been 6 years, and there's no real reason to believe this is going to turn around. I don't think a winning season is the firing threshold. After all, 1 overall winning season in 5 years (or 2 in 6 years) usually gets a coach fired, and 28-64 (30% winning percentage) in the Big East... one has to think that's some thin ice. This year the team's 2-5 in conference. It's going to be nearly impossible to get to .500 in the Big East this year, and what's the threshold for Norm in between .500 (the NCAAs) and a 2-win season? To be fair, the Athletic Director has said that he has confidence in Norm, and they (he and the President) like how he represents the University. But this was supposed to be the year the team starts winning games; I don't think the decision-makers realized how far St. John's has been from winning margins in the past.
The media hasn't run with the "if he's fired" ball yet, so no coaching candidates to date. The fans on the message boards have their favorites, ranging to most NYC-connected coaches, mostly with (positive) head coaching records. I won't give voice to those names (though admittedly, I will take a look at some coaches for the possible local openings on the East Coast Bias blog), but Tom Pecora will find a way to get his name in there. If it gets to "dead man walking" level - and no one quite knows at what level the coach would certainly be fired - there are multiple issues to consider, including how much the school will pay, the "cleanliness" of the coach, et cetera.
5. Dwight Hardy has been a key player for the Red Storm coming from Community College. As a junior, fans will still have another year to have him around. Has his production been a surprise for the team or was he expected to contribute this much?
A slight surprise, but the fans figured that if he could really shoot, he'd get time - the team has lacked a 3-point shooter for much of Norm Roberts' time at St. John's. So someone who could come up and just start shooting with just a simple screen was going to get some minutes. He's been a nice player for sure; and his ability to bring the ball up on occasion is also helpful.