Over the past couple days, embattled St. John's coach Norm Roberts has received emotional and unqualified support from his players, who gave all they had in a Big East Tournament blowout of Connecticut and yesterday's two-point loss to Marquette. UConn coach Jim Calhoun predicted the Red Storm would be a top-six team in the conference next season, and Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams praised them as the hardest-working bunch in the league.
It's when you factor in the bottom line where things get ticklish for Roberts. His six-year record is 81-100, and it's 34-73 in Big East play. He was hoping for visible signs of progress this season, but St. John's 6-12 league record and second-round exit from the conference tournament were the same as a year ago.
So Roberts' case now goes to the jury, which consists of athletic director Chris Monasch and university president Rev. Donald Harrington.
There's no doubt Roberts has done an admirable job of cleaning up the mess he inherited, and the effort and loyalty of his players is a testament to the kind of person the coach is. But it's the record that's against him. Have there been enough wins?
"That's fair,'' Roberts said of the question he knew he would face. "That's all fair. We're paid to win games. That's the bottom line. But I also think you're paid for the process and making sure you're doing the right things.''
When he took over six years ago, Roberts said it was impossible to see this far down the road in terms of where he wanted to end up. But he knows how deep the hole was when he began.
"When I first got here, we were rock-bottom, playing in the best league in America,'' Roberts said. "There's no cupcakes in our league, and I think our guys did a great job of growing and getting better. I think we've got a chance to be one of the better teams next year.''
Progress is in the eye of the beholder. Roberts saw improvement in terms of being competitive in tough games with top opponents, and he liked the way St. John's played toward the end of the season. It won on the road against Notre Dame and South Florida, came from 20 down to win at DePaul, crushed UConn and wiped out a 14-point deficit against Marquette before falling.
Responding to Calhoun's top-six projection, Roberts said, "I think we can win a lot of games. It's not about here's the potential. You've got to live out that potential, and I think our guys are doing that.''
So far, Roberts said he has received no indication about his job status because that discussion comes after the season. That means it has to wait until after Sunday night when the NIT bids go out to see if St. John's season will be extended.
One thing Monasch and Harrington can't do is let Roberts go without being certain they have a better answer lined up. Earlier this season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino questioned whether St. John's has the necessary resources. Roberts, who makes about $1.4 million less than coaches in the $2-million class such as Pitino, laughed and acknowledged other schools have more resources but then said St. John's has enough to get the job done.
"There are teams in our league that you say are corporations, and then there's the teams we call the 'knuckle-up' teams,'' Roberts said. "You've got to be tough. We want to be one of those 'knuckle-up' teams because that's who we are. That's what St. John's has always been, a little school in Queens that works really hard.''
The question is whether Roberts has what it takes to knuckle up and convince a McDonald's All-American or two to choose the little school in Queens.