Coach Norm Roberts stepped to the podium, trying to downplay the disappointments of his first five seasons at St. John's, and attempting to cast a positive glow on the upcoming campaign.
Roberts' arrival in April of 2004 promised to usher in the Red Storm's return to national prominence, with top New York-area recruits leading the way. His ability to recruit top-flight talent made him invaluable at Illinois and Kansas as Bill Self's lead assistant.
St. Johns, which finished 16-18 (64-85 in five seasons) last season, has yet to see the results of Roberts' persuasive recruiting pitch.
Without a consensus top-100 national recruit, the 09-10 season and Roberts' job likely will depend on the development of touted junior college transfers and established veterans.
"It's not a make or break season," Roberts said yesterday at St. John's campus.
Roberts doesn't believe speculation about his job status affected his recruiting and said that sort of talk has not infiltrated the locker room. "It has had zero affect on them," Roberts said.
One of Roberts' top recruits, Malik Stith, a Long Island native who played one season at Hempstead High School. Stith believes the players, although aware of Roberts' tenuous status, were not deterred from coming to St. Johns. "Obviously, that was something in the air," Stith said. "If we get it done, then we won't have to worry about it."
The fortunes of this season will rest on the veterans Roberts has recruited and nurtured since he took over the program. Senior Anthony Mason Jr., who missed the 08-09 season with a foot injury, returns to the frontcourt with last year's leading scorer, Paris Horne. Double-digit scorers D.J. Kennedy and Sean Evans complement the Storm's athleticism. "This year, we feel we have the horses to get it done," junior point guard Malik Boothe said.
Boothe returns as the team's starting point guard and will be spelled by Stith, who led East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte to a North Carolina State 4-A Championship. The addition of Stith gives the Storm a second traditional point guard, increasing its ability to play 40 minutes of a run-and-gun offense.
While Roberts said his guys are "not as big as I would like," he is looking to use that to his advantage. "I'd rather have speed over size," Roberts said. "If you have speed, you can get around size."
The Red Storm's size, or lack thereof, will be tested in the bump-and-grind Big East.
Norm Roberts' tenure at St. Johns may depend on it.