The road to salvation for St. John's coach Norm Roberts, who is fighting to hold onto his job, lies through Memphis and probably Oxford, Miss. For the first time in his six-season tenure, the Red Storm was invited to a legitimate, traditional postseason tournament when the NIT extended a bid Sunday night.
The sixth seed Roberts' team received wasn't too glamorous and meant the Storm must take its show on the road in order to earn its way back to New York with a couple of wins. But first-round opponent Memphis and probable second-round foe Ole Miss are eminently beatable.
In essence, the NIT selection committee has presented Roberts with a golden opportunity for a kind of postseason do-over that might buy him another season to prove the program is headed the right direction. St. John's returns everyone next season except Anthony Mason Jr. and walk-on John Taubeneck, who dribbled out the final seconds of the Red Storm's first-round victory over UConn last week in the Big East tournament.
It takes three wins to get St. John's to its home court at Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals, but if the Red Storm gets past Memphis and the winner of the Mississippi-Troy game, there's a strong possibility it could face Big East rival Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in the third round. Fourth-seeded Hall must get past Texas Tech in its first game and then beat the Arizona State Jacksonville winner, but neither Tech nor ASU compares to the competition the Pirates faced in the Big East.
So, despite a 81-100 record at St. John's and a Big East mark of 6-12 this season that only matched his conference mark from the previous season, Roberts might find a way to survive. The Storm did some of its best work toward the end of the season, and the players have professed their devotion to the coach at a time when they know his job is in jeopardy.
Roberts embraced the suggestion the NIT bid validates his work. "This is one more step in us improving our program and taking it from where it was," he said. "We played in the [first-year] CBI last year, and now, having a chance to play in a national tournament like the NIT is awesome. So, it's another step in that progress to getting over the hump and moving on."
Three wins to reach the NIT semifinals on familiar turf would be a very persuasive argument that could not be dismissed easily by Rev. Donald Harrington, the university president, or by athletic director Chris Monasch even if some alumni donors might favor a coaching change.
Whether or not success in the NIT would translate to success, not only in the Big East, but also in the local recruiting wars is another matter. Still, wins are important, especially if they come on the road against other top-100 teams.
So, for those who were checking their watches to see if time was almost up for Roberts, better spring ahead and re-set those watches to St. John's Savings Time.