The job status of St. John's coach Norm Roberts is uncertain, and pressure to win is affecting his players. The prospect of facing a hostile crowd on their home floor at Madison Square Garden for a Big East Tournament first-round game against Connecticut (17-14) Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. has the Red Storm (16-14) on the defensive emotionally.
Tears welled in the eyes of point guard Malik Boothe Monday when asked why anyone should believe the 13th-seeded Red Storm can win five straight games to win the tournament. "We're going to believe in ourselves," he said before excusing himself from the room temporarily to collect his thoughts.
Roberts interpreted Boothe's reaction as a sign of frustration with the lack of fan support. While recognizing fan impatience with rebuilding, Roberts believes the program is "on the verge" of a breakthrough.
For most of this season, Roberts has downplayed his job situation, but Monday he defended progress the program has made in six years under his leadership.
"I can understand the frustration from fans," he said. "They want to win, and they want to be in The Big Dance. Nobody wants to be there more than we do, but it's a process. People don't understand that it's tough to build from the bottom up in a great league."
"It's hard, really hard," Roberts said. "We so happen to be in the best league in America. In some cases, we don't have some of the resources some people have, so it makes it a little bit harder . . . I think we're on the verge of breaking through, but it takes time to do it."
UConn, which made the Final Four last year, has underachieved to such an extent this season that Jim Calhoun threatened to bench seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards for the start of today's game. Even so, the Huskies always travel with a big following to the Garden, and it won't be surprising if it sounds as though St. John's is the visitor.
Roberts said that's tough on Boothe and other players who have given their best on the court and have done the right things off the court.
"Sometimes it doesn't translate to wins, but when people [question] why fans should come out, you should because you love St. John's," Roberts said. "If guys are giving everything they have, you should support them. So I think that bothered [Boothe]."
Reflecting on his three seasons, Boothe said he isn't used to losing as much as St. John's has, especially in conference play. "To get a taste of winning like we were earlier in the season," he said, "I want to taste that all the time."
Roberts told his players the tournament offers a chance to make up for all the blown leads this season, and he said it would take at least two and maybe three wins to earn an NIT bid.
If the Storm doesn't make the postseason, Roberts said of his job status: "Maybe things don't go your way in the end. But I don't think that's really on our guys' minds. I think our guys feel, 'We're in the Big East Tournament playing UConn. Come out and support us. Help us get over the hump.' Because a lot of times, people don't realize that having those extra fans there does push you over the top. It helps you."