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NIT may provide second chance for St. John's coach Roberts

St. John's head coach Norm Roberts yells from

St. John's head coach Norm Roberts yells from the sideline in the first half against UConn during the first round of the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden. St. John's won, 73-51. (March 9, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Jason DeCrow

The road to salvation for St. John's coach Norm Roberts, who is fighting to hold on to 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.

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 the metropolitan area 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 a golden opportunity for a kind of postseason do-over that might buy him another season to prove the program is headed in 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 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 will face Big East rival Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in the third round. Fourth-seeded Seton 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 an 81-100 record with 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 Red 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 that 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 the Rev. Donald Harrington, the university president, or by athletic director Chris Monasch even if some alumni donors might favor a coaching change.

Whether 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 reset those watches to St. John's Savings Time.

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