For the second straight season DePaul's final home game of the season will be played against St. John's and head coach Norm Roberts. Hopefully this year's game goes better than the 84-63 debacle to end last season. Pico Dulce of the East Coast Bias, a very thorough blog about the Red Storm, was kind enough to answer some questions about the team and its season before the game. You can check out my answers to his DePaul questions here.
1) CCB: I thought St. John's had a chance to be a breakout team in the Big East this season. What happened that prevented it?
ECB: A solid part of the problem is coaching - in that the team's offensive efficiency remains substandard (simple table here); the players lost a little confidence; and I would say the defensive effort and scheme has some obvious holes that have been exploited. It's a big, big leap from losing by an average of 7.8 points (last Big East season) and losing by 4.4 (current Big East season). They have improved a bit - not enough to break out. They could have had a South Florida-style increase in competence, but they were inexplicably worked over by Providence and Rutgers, lost to Marquette at the end (but weren't sharp for crucial points of the game), and gave a spectacularly poor effort against Seton Hall - a game that looked like a 40 minute case of the jitters.
If only one of those losses happens, they would be 18-11, 8-9 in conference, and they would be just on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble. It would still be ugly, but it would be a breakout season. From the player effort and mistakes, I would say that this isn't just a case of lacking talent. I think the losing has begotten more losing.
2) CCB: What has been the problem for St. John's over the last 3-game slide?
ECB: On a micro level, it's the execution of the team. Against Syracuse and Pitt, they were bludgeoned from beginning to end - a step slow, very weak in the paint in terms of denying early position. And when the Red Storm are behind, they don't have the execution or firepower from outside to come back (now even worse with guard Dwight Hardy out with an injury).
On a larger scale, there's not just one issue. The ball doesn't get to Justin Burrell, the best low-post threat. The team's other forwards are mistake-prone. The guards don't make enough plays. DJ Kennedy can't always save the team. The morale looks low. The team doesn't have a strong plan when the "screen and dribble at the basket" offense isn't creating shots. There's no plan B when the other team can execute their offense (like a way of generating turnovers, for example). There's no takeover talent who can save the team when they're in the doldrums. To win, they have to execute on offense and prevent easy shots, and they haven't done either.
3) CCB: How is Norm Roberts feeling about his job security? Will he be the next Big East coach that's fired?
ECB: He might be feeling ok about it. No one knows. It's up to the school president, according to rumors and the news sources, and the president likes Norm at last count. Norm has kept the program scandal free - no hookers, no violence, very few pot smoking arrests - and that holds a lot of sway. No, it doesn't make that much sense to me either; there are other coaches who can get model citizens, but some that win.
There is no word or strong rumor in the papers that he might be fired. Some message board rumors have gotten out on the subject, but nothing that the papers have felt confident in reporting. In fact, Seth Davis reports that an AP reporter close to the program thinks Norm has a chance of retaining his job.
And if they make some kind of run in the Big East tournament, or inexplicably get an invite to the NIT... which I think of as crazy, but there are a LOT of mediocre major-conference teams this year.
4) CCB: Who are some key players to watch out for on St. John's?
ECB: Generally, the idea for the Red Storm is to get balanced scoring from everyone. Justin Burrell was coming on pretty nicely before the recent losing streak. He will come off the bench but make an impact. DJ Kennedy will look to get to the basket. Malik Boothe (left) has been very active on offense (less of a difference on defense) and DePaul will need to watch out, he has confidence in his jump shot again. Hopefully, Omari Lawrence will play since Hardy is on the bench.
5) CCB: Next year lots of these guys will be seniors. Is that the year?
ECB: That they graduate? Hopefully! Joke.
I would think that even if the current staff comes back (and if they do, I think they will have a few new players - some guys seem disgruntled), there is a chance that they make the NIT, maybe even the NCAAs. Then again, the Big East will have a lot of talent once more and these are the same guys. There isn't really a junior-to-senior bump I have seen, and has anyone studied the effects of keeping a core together for 3-4 years? I think St. John's would fall just short of the NCAAs.
Now, if they hire a new coach and he can train out some of the bad habits - and doesn't run a foreign offense like the Princeton-style O... I don't see why this team can't reach the NCAAs or at least come close. I think there is talent that hasn't yet been honed, especially in Burrell, Coker, and Brownlee. Also, the team could learn to do something well on defense - this class of juniors hasn't been outstanding at scoring prevention inside or outside the arc, forcing turnovers, dominating the defensive glass, blocking shots, or defending without fouling.
Thanks again to Pico for his thoughtful insight about the Red Storm. Catch the game on Friday night.