A slow moving train to irrelevance: Norm Roberts apologia

A bit of non-news as the summer slowly slides into that speculative period for basketball fans - an article about how the Red Storm program has improved in recent years. But what actually constitutes better off?

Yesterday's NY Post article, Roberts put St. John's on the Right Track, begs the question. It begins with:

Norm Roberts deserves some of the credit for the success Steve Lavin and his staff have enjoyed in a little over a year at St. John's, the newly hired Florida assistant coach told The Post during the AAU Super Showcase at the ESPN Wide World of Sports.

"I look back at my time at St. John's as I came in there when that place was in turmoil and left that place in very, very good shape -- and I don't think that can be denied by anybody," Roberts said. "Basketball people know the job we did and how hard we worked."

New York fans will just wave their hands at this statement, waive it away. But fans outside of New York believe this, especially those with the rigid idea that Steve Lavin is the worst coach on the level of Morris Buttermaker when he's three sheets to the wind. In the interest of shoving some putty into that hole of an idea, let's talk about how unlikely last year was, and exactly what we all should consider as progress.

First: The last decade of basketball decimation in Queens was notably bad. The school's flagship program fell off the map, became a punchline, an also-ran to rival schools in New York City. That's bad; but the St. John's program was decimated not by a coach alone, but by a coach and the administration - an administration who chose to fire the hated Mike Jarvis in December of the 2003 season, leaving an interim coach in charge of a team of, what turned out to be poorly disciplined knuckleheads. But that's part of the reason the administration fired Mike Jarvis, wasn't it? So isn't it partly their fault that they got caught up in some unsavory, un-Catholic business in a Pittsburgh strip club?

Second: Norm Roberts came into a tough situation with no scholarship players, an administration who wanted squeaky clean, and a NYC recruiting scene that was no longer favorable to the hometown team. And Roberts recruited hard... but with middling success. His recruits weren't enough to make the Johnnies very competitive in the league, and not good enough to cover for his staff's ineffective offensive coaching. What Norm did well was to bring in players with character into the program, players who represented the school well off the court. And kudos to him for that. 

But is that such a unique job for a high-level coach? Is moving a program from under 5 scholarship players to a .500 overall club that is consistently in the bottom 4-5 of the Big East standings actually better off? Is that worth a cookie or a gold star?

The story will stand for a while - the team was progressing to an NCAA Tournament berth, the recruiting was gaining traction, Lavin didn't even have to coach, the players magically learned to play cohesive basketball on their own. 

Fluke or Magic?: But last year - at least to me - was a triumph of coaching and/ or a fluke.

Our friend John at NYC Buckets has developed similarity scores to matching teams from last year with recent squads by their tempo-free statistics. I bring this up because while some of the scores make sense - like how Indiana was equivalent of scuffling mid-major squads - the St. John's comparisons look almost insane - certainly not flattering major-conference comparisons:

Stephen F. Austin 2006 (17-12)
Ohio 2011 (19-16)
SE Louisiana 2004 (20-9)
Austin Peay 2007 (21-12)
Ball St. 2005 (15-13)
Oakland 2004 (13-17)
Texas St. 2011 (16-16)
Oklahoma St. 2008 (17-16)
Missouri Kansas City 2004 (15-14)
New Mexico St. 2011 (16-17)
Northeastern 2004 (19-11)
Kent St. 2006 (25-9, 12 seed)
Iowa 2007 (17-14)
Siena 2006 (15-13)
Illinois Chicago 2004
Arkansas 2009 (14-16)
Texas Tech 2011 (13-19)
Purdue 2008 (25-9, 6 seed)
Pepperdine 2005 (17-14)
Wisconsin Green Bay 2007 (18-15)

Which is to say that a team with St. John's profile - an team heavy on ball protection and turnovers forced, but otherwise not exceptional at offense or defense - rarely has an NCAA Tournament season, or knocks off that many top-25 squads in one year.  It should be noted that the comparisons are affected by the Johnnies' early struggles against Fordham, Columbia, St. Bonaventure, and Wagner. But what happened last year was frankly bizarre. 

Steve Lavin's Johnnies had a total of one solid Big East scorer (maybe two, if you consider Justin Brownlee), and a very good jack of all trades in D.J. Kennedy. Justin Burrell was a good rebounder, Paris Horne was a good defender. 

Basketball people might know how hard Norm worked, but all that hard work elevated the Johnnies to a long future of mediocrity if there was no change. Norm Roberts deserves some credit for not leaving a team of walk-on quality, like at DePaul, or a decimated roster that couldn't put the ball in the ocean like at Rutgers, or a revolving roster of low-impact players and occasional knuckleheads like at South Florida.

So, was Norm Roberts' stewardship worthy of strong credit. Should it simply be forgotten like many of the post-Carnesecca coaching efforts? Answer honestly and realistically, knowing that Norm Roberts was a good representative of the program in many ways.

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