Thursday, 3 September 2009

ESPN's Andy Katz's article on St. John's

Several mentions of this weekend's trip to Canada and talk about what St. John's needs to do to return to the glory years.

Red Storm hopes trip is start of something big

The attempt by St. John's to climb back to relevance and respect begins this weekend in Canada.

If the Red Storm can find itself becoming an aggressive, trapping defensive team, as sixth-year coach Norm Roberts wishes, the quest to finish in the single digits in the Big East standings might not be so far-fetched. Since he arrived to pick over the pieces left behind in the post-Mike Jarvis era, Roberts has never been this effusive with praise of his team.

The shadow of NCAA probation and a dearth of big-time talent plagued Roberts early in his tenure. The Red Storm finished under .500 in all but one of the five seasons, although they did earn a postseason berth last season, losing to Richmond in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational despite having a 16-17 record when the invite arrived.

In five seasons under Norm Roberts, the Red Storm is just 26-58 in Big East play.

But the pessimism about the productivity of this program has subsided. There is a sense from the administration down through the staff to the players that the Johnnies legitimately can be a factor in the Big East chase to finish in the top 10 and finally -- yes, finally -- make Madison Square Garden a destination for Red Storm fans in the metropolitan area, not just for fans of other Big East teams that might play on the hallowed court.

"We're going to be a real good team, top 10 in the Big East this year, if not higher," said senior Anthony Mason Jr., who missed 31 of 34 games last season with a torn peroneal tendon in his right foot. "It all starts this weekend."

The Red Storm have been practicing the past week in preparation for the four-game, three-day sojourn to Quebec, where they will play McGill and the University of Quebec on Saturday in Montreal and then Carleton University and the University of Ottawa on Sunday in a pair of back-to-back doubleheaders in Ottawa.

The NCAA membership recently changed the rule regarding Labor Day trips. They are now banned beginning this fall unless a school (such as SJU) had already signed a contract for a tour. St. John's was supposed to go to on a Labor Day trip last year, but the excursion to Cancun was canceled due to Hurricane Gustav.

"The timing of getting the extra practice time and the games couldn't be better," said St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch. "A lot of things are falling in line. We had young teams in the past, but now we've got a veteran team with the parts in place. There are high expectations for this year."

Yes, St. John's expects to finish in the top 10 in the Big East -- and that's not a crazy concept. The 16-team league isn't as top-seed-loaded as it was a year ago with Connecticut, Louisville and Pitt. But the depth remains strong from 1 to 14, so if St. John's is to move up from finishing in the bottom six (6-12 for 13th last season), someone will have to fall.

That means a team out of the group of Villanova, Georgetown, West Virginia, Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, Pitt, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Seton Hall and Marquette isn't finishing in the top nine if St. John's is sliding into that spot. Projecting Providence, South Florida, Rutgers and DePaul in the bottom four, meanwhile, isn't a reach.

"It's been a hard climb," Roberts said. "Nobody knows how hard. And every time we felt like we could climb, we've had some things we've had to recover from."

The reason there is measured optimism? The Red Storm brought in four newcomers, which include two junior transfers who give Roberts his most experienced team since he arrived in Queens. The team has six returnees with significant starting experience, as 97.2 percent of the scoring and 95.1 percent of the rebounding return to a team that won 16 games and registered the school's first Big East tournament victory since 2003.

Also back and healthy are Mason Jr., Malik Boothe (out nine games with a torn tendon in his thumb) and Justin Burrell (played with a face mask after breaking a facial bone in December).

If the Red Storm were to finish in the top nine -- or, gulp, seventh or eighth -- that presumably means they would automatically be in the NCAA tournament discussion out of the Big East. It's a little early for that kind of talk, though. Roberts knows it. Mason knows it. Everyone knows it.

Still, the approach to this weekend has remained intense.

"I really want to get out of this trip to play aggressive defensively, to trap ball screens, to rotate and press all over the place," Roberts said. "I haven't been able to do that in the past because we haven't been as athletic or deep. We've got a great opportunity to do those things now."

Roberts said the Big East window is open for the Red Storm. The league was gutted of a number of its star players by the NBA draft. There is actual hope that a team from the bottom six can climb this season.

"It's our turn to step up," Roberts said. "No game will be easy, but with our depth and experience, this is the year we've been pointing to. We want to make something happen."

An early-season trip to Duke will be a huge test for Anthony Mason Jr. and the Johnnies.

No one is pressing for a renaissance in Queens more than Mason Jr., who scored 24 points in his second game of last season against Cornell and 12 against BC before the season-ending injury. The Memphis, Tenn., native won an appeal to get a fourth year of eligibility back in his fifth year in school.

"I can't wait," said Mason Jr., whose father Anthony Mason was a high school teammate of Roberts, and later a New York Knicks fan favorite. "I haven't played in a year. I love practice now. That's how much I've missed it. This is my last year. I think I want it more than a lot of people. I want [Madison Square Garden] to be rocking and for everyone to say St. John's this and St. John's that. This is our city. It ain't been seeming like our city, but we can make noise and bring it back."

Monasch is a bit more realistic with the Garden. He wants MSG to be a house teams fear, but when it's near capacity. St. John's has averaged under 6,000 fans at home the past two seasons and in three of the past four.

The first indication the program had drifted from relevance in the Big Apple came last year, when the New York-centric NIT Season Tip-Off (even under NCAA control) sent St. John's to Boston College for opening-round games instead of hosting the games in Queens. SJU lost to the Eagles and didn't qualify for the Thanksgiving week semifinals.

The next slap came in the promotion of the SEC-Big East Invitational. On Dec. 9, St. John's will host Georgia; the game will be the clear undercard on the Red Storm's own home court. Following that game will be a showdown between Kentucky and Connecticut.

"Yeah, we got downgraded," Mason Jr. said. "It's all about Cal [Kentucky head coach John Calipari], Kentucky and Connecticut. People want them. They're not talking about the St. John's game."

The school will once again play a limited number of games at MSG this season. According to Monasch, the Red Storm plays Georgia, the two-game Holiday Festival just before Christmas and likely six of nine Big East home games there. The school played nine regular-season games at MSG last season, and it appears it'll be the same amount this season.

"Our goal is to play as many games at the Garden as possible, but with some non-league games and a game or two in the Big East on campus for those fans and because we made a financial commitment to our arena," said Monasch, referring to the ongoing renovation of the on-campus Carnesecca Arena.

"It makes sense to have some of those games in Queens. But at the end of the day, once we get the program back to the level with the ability to generate revenue [at MSG], then there is more upside for the whole athletic department. The TV people like us playing there, and so does the Big East. But it has been a business decision to play on campus."

But the interest has to exceed Carnesecca, driving the demand to MSG.

How can the Red Storm make itself matter to New Yorkers when the Big East tournament arrives in March? Winning early-season games would help. Roberts said a Dec. 5 game at Duke and the Georgia game at home four days later could be the indicators of what is to come.

"That will be a huge situation for us," Roberts said, "to see if we can win those games and get some notoriety and get everybody excited."

The scores from Canada won't matter. How the Red Storm plays, whether or not they have issues scoring (see: 10 games last season scoring 60 or fewer points) and if they can be a crazed defensive team that is a pest to play will be the real measuring sticks for Roberts over the next six weeks.

"A lot of people are going to look at this tournament to see how this season will go," Mason Jr. said of the four games in Canada. "People may want to know, 'What are they doing up there and how did they handle their business?' Well, defense is going to be our key. We've got length, tall guys, quick guys, athletic guys where we can get into the passing lanes. We'll be very defensive-minded. People won't want to play us because of our defense."

The junior class should dominate this squad and this weekend with classmates Paris Horne, D.J. Kennedy, Dwight Hardy, Sean Evans, Rob Thomas, Dele Coker, Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee all having plenty of experience.

Monasch said Roberts could have gone for a quick fix with four-year transfers and junior college transfers when he arrived. But, he said, "We wanted Norm to do it the right way, and he's done it that way." Roberts has a five-year contract that has a rollover every year, which means every year is essentially the start of a new five-year deal. That doesn't mean there won't be some pressure this season if the Red Storm struggle.

Monasch said the games like Duke, Georgia and the Philly Hoop Group Classic are all critical, but how the Storm performs over an 18-game Big East schedule will ultimately be the barometer for how this team is perceived and whether it gets an NCAA bid.

"We hope to create excitement, but how we do in the Big East will determine that," Monasch said.

"[Roberts] has held up good with a straight face," Mason Jr. said. "He doesn't hold his head down. He keeps it positive and keeps us confident. He keeps pushing us. He's held up, especially after a lot of [job security] stuff was said about him and this team. We've all handled it good, and that's why we're doing it for him, too."

This article by Katz is a couple of days old but sheds light on the ability of NCAA teams to travel abroad during any time of the year...

Summer trips abroad should be left alone

The Pac-10 was looking at ways to contain costs and somehow decided that foreign tours ought to be trimmed across the whole NCAA.

The NCAA had already passed legislation that prevents Labor Day trips outside the United States beginning this fall (unless a team already had a signed contract for a trip). But to cut out all travel over the summer -- even after summer school -- for all sports?

The Pac-10 office said former commissioner Tom Hansen and former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny were the two officials who were pushing the bill. But both are now retired, meaning that the amendment -- -- is going through the legislative cycle without a lobbying effort. Still, legislation with a rationale that "saving the costs of such tours seems to be logical in difficult economic times'' might catch the eye of administrators looking to trim any possible fat.

That's the danger here. These trips aren't an elite opportunity. IUPUI and Bethune Cookman went to Costa Rica this summer. Vanderbilt went to Australia, after Commodores coach Kevin Stallings filled the financial void by paying for the trip when the university could not afford the bill. Butler went to Italy. Pitt is planning to go to Ireland next summer. A year ago, Notre Dame went back to its roots with a tour of Ireland.

As you can see, there is a broad spectrum of schools here with varying budgets. Raising the money for these trips shouldn't be legislated. Foreign trips can only be taken once every four years, so it's not like this is a yearly budget issue. And since newcomers can't go on the summer trip, a lot of coaches choose to stay home even when they have the opportunity to go overseas.

The rationale starts off with, "While visiting foreign nations is a part of the learning experience, foreign tours are viewed by many institutions as an additional opportunity to get a head start on the ensuing season." Is this true? Yes. A team gets 10 practices to use before a trip. But let's be honest here. Did Notre Dame get an advantage in going to Ireland that it benefited from in March? No. The Irish flamed out and didn't make the tournament. So it's hard to make some argument that by going on a trip overseas, suddenly that school will be light-years ahead of the rest.

That argument of the practice and head start might fly with squeezing in a three-day jaunt to Canada or the Bahamas over Labor Day. But the trips for 10 to 14 days overseas in August aren't the same. Vanderbilt assistant Brad Frederick said the trips overseas are the first time a number of the players have been out of the country. Frederick said he has talked to a number of coaches both in men's basketball and other sports who said they raise the money.

Butler coach Brad Stevens isn't in favor of any legislation that would take away a chance for his team to experience foreign countries.

To think these are just junkets is short-sighted. Butler coach Brad Stevens offered even more insight into the overall experience.

"Travel abroad is a terrific educational experience,'' said Stevens, who played at DePauw and went to Europe during his freshman season. "I remember being in awe of Paris. To this day, one of my goals is to take my family over there when my kids are older, so that they can get the privilege of seeing firsthand the architecture, the history, the language and the culture.''

Going overseas during college, most of the time for a semester, is commonplace for the mainstream student body. It doesn't matter the level of institution. There are opportunities for students to go all over the globe.

"If I wasn't a basketball player, I would have loved to do a semester abroad,'' Stevens said. "However, because the season spans both semesters, that isn't an option, so the summer tour at least gives our players a chance to briefly experience a new country."

Going overseas for a few games and sight-seeing can be beneficial if they want to play professionally but aren't NBA-level. Familiarizing them with the foreign game, albeit for only a few games, is also worthwhile.

This summer, IUPUI's Ron Hunter took his team to Costa Rica at the same time as Bethune Cookman and Bowling Green. Hunter gave away 2,000 shoes in his continued effort to put shoes on shoeless children around the globe.

"I just came back from the NABC board and we decided to be against this legislation,'' Hunter said. "I don't care what happens in the games. The experience they had being in another country and delivering shoes. We don't have to mandate to do that, but there should be an educational and humanitarian aspect."

Hunter isn't worried about it because he doesn't think the legislation has legs.

"I don't think it's going anywhere, but now that we've drawn attention to it, let's not just have just 10 days of practice and play. Let's do something to make the country better. If you want to give away shoes then do it -- find something to do."

Hunter said his players enjoyed the distribution of the shoes more than the games.

"I would have been devastated if something like that happens,'' Hunter said of the legislation. "None of my kids could afford that trip, and none of the kids at Bethune Cookman could afford to do that. Let's leave these countries with them thinking that American student-athletes are terrific and made [their] country better."

The legislation will work its way through the membership and come up for a vote sometime during the 2009-10 legislative calendar. Voting out foreign tours without an exception over the summer would make no sense. The cost-cutting is minimal and isn't across the board for every school. There are plenty of other areas where fat can be trimmed out of a budget that each individual school can address.

Legislating budget control when all budgets aren't equal doesn't equate. And judging by the names of the schools going on the trips, it's obvious that some schools value taking the trip, even if they are in a lower level of Division I.

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