Team preview: St. John's

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

It was pretty easy to be a Red Storm fan in '05-'06. Well, except for a third-straight losing season. Because coach Norm Roberts didn't have too many answers on the bench, the big names spent most of their time on the court.

Daryll Hill and Eugene Lawrence each averaged more than 32 minutes a game. Two others -- Lamont Hamilton and Anthony Mason -- played more than 28 minutes a night. And in tough games, those four were on the court even more than that. It was a similar situation to the previous year, Roberts' first in Jamaica.

"In the last couple years, I'd go to the bench, and there would be walk-ons, or the talent would drop off," Roberts said.

That's not a slam on the non-starters. It's just the truth. To be successful in the Big East, teams can't use four or five players for three-quarters of the game and hope to fill the gaps with lesser players. The main men wear down, and by late in the season, teams are no match for the more powerful programs in the league. That's why you sometimes see thin clubs make an early bid before sagging greatly later on.

St. John's did that last year. After a Jan. 21 win over Pittsburgh, which followed an equally-surprising triumph over Louisville, the Johnnies were 3-2 in the Big East and 10-6 overall. AP voters gave the Red Storm attention for the first time in four years. Things looked good.

Then came the trouble. A 66-50 loss at Connecticut triggered a six-game losing streak. After starting the year so well, St. John's went 2-9 and finished 12-15. The good start was fun, but the reality of having too little depth was too much to overcome.

Roberts doesn't think that will happen this year. A ready-to-play crop of five newcomers, together with five returning starters and a couple of key reserves, will give St. John's options and versatility. There is no guarantee the Johnnies will end up in the Big East's upper division, but they should qualify for the conference tournament, something they didn't do last year. And those iron men from '05-'06 should get a break. They're still key pieces, but they won't be the entire show.

"We've talked to our guys and told them we won't have to play Eugene Lawrence and Lamont Hamilton 38 minutes a game this year," Roberts said. "They'll actually play less minutes but be more productive."

Their value will be even greater when one considers their roles as elders on the team. Instead of the coaching staff's being responsible for every detail of the program, the older players (St. John's has five upperclassmen of note on the roster) can help set the tone.

"That has a huge value," Roberts said. "There may have been situations in the past where I had to take the time to explain something to everybody about what needs to be done. Now, a veteran can take a young guy to the side and say, 'Coach doesn't want that. Do this.' When they hear it from a teammate, the younger players think, 'OK, this is the way.' "