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On Air: The Official Blog of WSJU Sports

After six long, strenuous, and at times, very painful years under Norm Roberts, St. John’s basketball finally seems to be back on the right, winning track that you would expect from a program with such a rich history.

Let me preface all of this by saying that Norm Roberts is a great man, one who took the Red Storm from embarrassment and shame back to respectability. I have talked to him in press conferences and personally and he is everything you could ask for in a class guy. He did exactly what he was brought here to do–get this program back to even keel after the scandal that nearly sank the entire ship. His job was to recruit not only quality players, but quality kids, that would represent St. John’s on and off the court. He did that.

With all of this said, the six years under Norm Roberts seemed quite a bit like a romantic relationship, full of ups, downs, and in-betweens.

It began with a honeymoon, promise of brighter days in the future, a rich recruiting center in New York City, and a guy who had New York ties to cultivate the fruits of NYC basketball.

But, as the losses mounted, the excuses did too. He didn’t have the players yet. They hadn’t developed yet. And that all culminated this year. His boys had finally grown into juniors, matured, and ready to make a run in the weakened Big East. Result? A season that limped to a 17-16 finish and a first round exit in the NIT.

The last year of the Norm Roberts era encapsulated everything that the relationship had been. It had the “I Love You”‘s: a 9-1 start, beating Temple and Siena on neutral ground and almost beating Duke at Cameron Indoor. It had the “I Can’t Stand You”‘s: going 6-12 in the Big East, many times leading at halftime and losing that lead in the second half.

Those losses felt like setting up a dinner date, hyping it the whole day, and getting stood up, left to drink at the lonely bar until you finally give up and go home. And then it happened again. And again. And again.

Then, finally, St. John’s said “enough” and parted ways with Norm. As is just standard operating procedure, they played the “it’s not you, it’s me” card, but it’s clear they had their eye on bigger prizes.

Pursuing Billy Donovan of Florida, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech, and others, all seemed gloomy. Some began to miss Norm after two weeks of being “single”, but St. John’s continued to pursue and pursue.

And then, out of the woodwork, came the glamourous, Hollywood guy with the slick look and sweet talk that swept them off their feet. Steve Lavin, former UCLA coach and ESPN broadcaster, conveniently had a desire to coach again. It was like the one you’d had a crush on for years was finally single when you were. St. John’s fell in love at first sight and Lavin did as well. It seemed to be a match made in heaven.

And thus far, it has been nothing short of heaven. After forward Ron Roberts decommitted, Lavin jumped in and signed highly-touted recruit Dwayne Polee Jr. and is, according to SNY’s Adam Zagoria, the front runner for French-born and supremely-talented forward Remi Barry.

For the skeptics who point to Lavin’s tumultuous career at UCLA with questions, there is one thing you must understand. The expectations for any basketball coach at UCLA are absolutely ludicrous. It is one of those jobs, like coaching the Lakers or managing the Yankees, that carries so much weight that, one bad season, and you’re done. Anywhere else, he would have been regarded for the fantastic coach that he is.

He took the Bruins to six NCAA tournaments in seven years, including four Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight. How does that compare to Norm Robert’s track record of one NIT in six years?

The other question was recruiting. After all the time he spent at ESPN, would recruits still look at him as a coach? Well, it seems to me that, if anything, ESPN has amplified his star power. It only took five weeks and he has already nailed down a three star prospect and is in the running for another kid, Barry, who is said to be NBA-ready in two years.

Seems to me to be a closed case.

Some ask, will he be able to recruit in New York? I can answer that one of two ways, a hypothetical and a concrete way. 1) If his recruits win ballgames, does it really matter where they come from? And 2) The network of coaches and assistants he is bringing in, Tony Chiles from Drexel and Moe Hicks from famed Rice High School and a legend on the AAU circuit, will instantly make SJU a contender with UConn and other Tri-state area schools, I assure you.

So what does this mean? It seems St. John’s has left good-charactered but unreliable Norm Roberts for the sleeker, glitzier Steve Lavin. There is very little doubt to me that this is an upgrade and, when St. John’s travels to Los Angeles in February to take on the Bruins, UCLA will look at their Ex and remember exactly what they let go.

-Dan Martin


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