St. John's University celebrated its basketball heritage Tuesday night when it renamed the court in storied Alumni Hall after legendary coach Lou Carnesecca. And in a surprise halftime announcement, university President Donald Harrington thrilled the crowd and several dozen former Redmen and Red Storm players by announcing the building's name would also be changed to Carnesecca Arena.
The team then proceeded to put a damper on the evening by showing what a dubious state the program is in. The Red Storm lost to St. Francis of Brooklyn, 53-52 -- snapping a 26-game win streak over the Terriers that dated back to Jan. 21, 1956.
The St. John's team that comes to Lewiston to play Niagara at 7 Saturday night in the Gallagher Center doesn't remotely resemble the ones from the days of Looie glory, when stars such as Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson prowled the floor and produced a Final Four berth in 1985. As recently as 2000, the Red Storm won the Big East Tournament. In 2002, it was in the NCAA Tournament for the 27th time. In 2003, St. John's won the National Invitation Tournament.
Then came 2003-04. Coach Mike Jarvis, who had lost touch with the New York City high school and AAU community, was fired six games into the season and St. John's finished 6-21. Worse yet, the program was rocked by scandal when six players were suspended for breaking curfew and bringing a stripper back to the team hotel following a February game at Pittsburgh.
Into this backdrop comes Norm Roberts. He's a Queens guy who grew up following the Redmen in Alumni Hall and Madison Square Garden. After stints as an assistant under Bill Self at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and last year at Kansas, the 39-year-old Roberts has been entrusted to rebuild a once-great program.
"(Tuesday) was real big for us, a terrific night for coach (Carnesecca) and so many of the ex-players back," Roberts said this week by phone. "That is something that's always good for guys to see tradition. Everyone in New York City wants St. John's to be good again. We're the New York school. People want us to get back, but it takes time.
"The way things eroded here was a situation that happened over time. Now it will take time for us to get it back. I'm a New York guy. I've spent 29 years of my life here. I grew up watching them on TV and in the building. I've been around the tradition. St. John's has always been a winning program. And it will be again."
Still, fans of the program are frustrated by the sudden fall, which led the team to be chosen to finish last in the Big East in virtually every preseason poll. Things get no easier next year when the inclusion of powers such as Louisville and Cincinnati in the conference sends the Red Storm further down the pecking order.
Roberts' team is 1-1, posting a 79-68 win over Wagner in its opener before slipping Tuesday. The Red Storm had only 20 field goals and made 19 turnovers against a St. Francis team depleted by the suspensions of three players.
"It's a learning deal for our guys," Roberts said. "We're very young (there are nine freshmen or sophomores as well as three junior college players making their Division I debuts). Our 'veterans' are guys with one year experience. We have to have an intensity and have a passion every single night or we won't succeed."
Roberts moved to instill that passion with some 6 a.m. practices. And he's worked with the school to offer 1,600 free tickets to students for home games to try to reconnect the program with its biggest on-campus supporters.
"There's working hard and there's working 'Coach Roberts hard,' " juco transfer Ryan Williams said during preseason. "They're different and they look nothing alike."
Sophomore point guard Daryll Hill is Roberts' top returning player while 6-foot-9 Lamont Hamilton and 6-8 juco Rodney Epperson are the main inside weapons. In 6-6 Dexter Gray, the Red Storm has the Big East Rookie of the Week after he scored 17 points against Wagner.
"We have some parts," Roberts said. "Daryll is a terrific guard who's learning how to run the team. And Dexter has done a great job as well. He just has to stay focused and not listen to fanfare stuff."
Roberts knows competing Saturday will be a tall order, especially with a full house expected on Monteagle Ridge. Only a couple of hundred tickets remained at the close of business Wednesday. The Gallagher ticket office will be open today at 11 a.m.
"Niagara can be as good as a Top 25 or Top 30 team," Roberts said. "I've been at Oral Roberts and Tulsa so I know what Niagara is and what they're trying to accomplish. We know they're a terrific team and we have to be like the Niagaras and Tulsas ourselves as far as our thoughts on how we attack the game."
The Purple Eagles have not beaten the Red Storm since an 86-63 victory in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 26, 1997, during Jack Armstrong's final season as coach. Coach Joe Mihalich is 0-5 against St. John's, including last year's 72-65 loss in the Garden.