A St. John's season that began with 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 Tuesday night in an 84-72 loss at Rutgers. The lowly Scarlet Knights, who beat Notre Dame on Saturday to snap a nine-game losing streak, had three of the four best players on the floor, which is a measure of the sad state of coach Norm Roberts' program after six seasons at St. John's.
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. Rosario scored 21 of his points in the first half when the Knights' lead reached a high of 15 points.
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, and 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 Tuesday night is any example, the supporting cast shows promise.
The same can't be said for St. John's. Roberts, who arrived with a reputation as a top recruiter, supplemented his lineup this season 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 of Malik Boothe and Malik Stith is disappointing.
Six seasons is plenty of time for Roberts to have rebuilt St. John's program from the ashes of the Mike Jarvis era. In fact, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose No. 6 Mountaineers face the Red Storm Saturday at Madison Square Garden, said at the Big East preseason press conference that three years is enough time to put a successful program in place.
Roberts must find answers soon or finally be held accountable. He said he's stuck with a 10-man rotation because he has so much talent on his bench. But the results don't bear that out. 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 Sean Evans are inconsistent on the inside. Hardy is an undersized streak shooter who hit a 1-for-7 unlucky streak against the Knights.
"We'll find a combination that clicks and a rotation that clicks," Roberts said, suggesting changes are on the way.
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.