A St. John's season that began with some big early road wins over Siena and Temple and the promise of a team talented enough to contend once again for an NCAA tournament berth crashed to earth tonight in an 84-72 loss at Rutgers. The lowly Scarlet Knights, who had a nine-game losing streak before beating Notre Dame on Saturday, had three of the four best players on the floor.

Mike Rosario led the Knights (11-11, 2-8 Big East) with 33 points on 13-of-22 shooting. He got significant help from center Hamady Ndiaye with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting, nine rebounds and nine blocked shots and forward Jonathan Mitchell, who had 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting. The Red Storm (12-9, 2-7) basically countered only with D.J. Kennedy (27 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots).

This was a game St. John's had to win to have any hope of reviving its NCAA prospects and getting back into the middle of the Big East pack. But the Johnnies came out less than intense on the defensive end. Paris Horne had the job of guarding Rosario, and he got abused for the first 18 of his points. On one play, Horne failed to close out on a three-pointer that Rosario missed, and the Rutgers star then followed his shot to the basket, got the rebound and scored an uncontested layup for an 11-7 lead.

Coach Norm Roberts switched the 6-5 Kennedy onto Rosario near the end of the first half and slowed him slightly but not enough. Ndiaye was a dominant force on the inside, dunking five times and getting two layups, one on a goaltending call. Roberts said Mitchell posed matchup problems for his big men because he was able to step outside and hit four three-pointers.

Until now, Rutgers coach Fred Hill has been identified as the Big East coach on the hottest seat. But he recruited Rosario, the first McDonald's All-American in Scarlet Knights history, and if tonight is any example, the supporting cast shows promise.

The same can't be said for St. John's. Roberts supplemented his lineup with junior college transfers Justin Burrell, Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, all of whom are coming off a bench the coach was confident was deeper than ever.

But there are two problems. First, the overall talent level isn't high enough to compete in a conference with four teams ranked in the top seven in the AP poll, and they obviously are struggling to keep up with the middle-of-the-pack teams. Second, the point guard play is woeful. Malik Boothe made no field goals and had four points and one assist, and Malik Stith missed his only shot and had three assists.

Following such a disappointing loss, forwards Sean Evans and Kennedy bristled at some tough questions about the direction of this team. "This is not where we anticipated being," Evans said through tight lips. "Coach says we don't make the little plays, the toughness plays. When it's time to get a stop, we don't get it."

Kennedy said, "We're going to keep fighting. Right now, we're just struggling."

But the toughest questions that lie ahead are reserved for Roberts, who must start to find some answers or start to squirm on his coaching seat. He promised to play a deep rotation this season and has stuck to that, using 10 players tonight. But Anthony Mason Jr. hasn't regained his former level of play after being out more than a year with an assortment of injuries, and Burrell, Brownlee and Evans are inconsistent on the inside. Hardy is an undersized streak shooter who hit a 1-for-7 unlucky streak against the Knights.

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Asked if he might consider shortening his rotation to gain more consistency and keep his best scorers on the floor, Roberts said it was hard to do against Rutgers because of matchup problems. At the same time, he said he might have to consider some kind of change to the lineup or rotation before facing West Virginia Saturday at the Garden.

As for his team's fast-fading tournament hopes, Roberts said, "We're not making plays. We've got to fight through it. We've got to persevere and get ready to play West Virginia…We'll find a combination that clicks and a rotation that clicks."

If Roberts doesn't find a better formula, St. John's might find the bottom of the Big East. The way things are going, the regular-season finale at last-place DePaul might turn out to be a referendum on the coach's job, in which case, it's too late.