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Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Can new staffs save Hoyas, Storm?

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON/JAMAICA, N.Y. -- We've combined these datelines because these two programs, Georgetown and St. John's, are linked in their recent misery ... and sudden irrelevance.

As best we can tell from our records, for the first time in ESPN's 25-year history, neither program has a scheduled game on ESPN or ESPN2.

Not one.

With over 300 games on the networks, that should speak volumes about where these two programs are as two new coaches, John Thompson III at Georgetown and Norm Roberts at St. John's, try desperately to make these programs matter again.

Not just in their respective cities and with their alumni, but also nationally after reaching their zenith in 1985 when both were in the Final Four.

Remember, we're talking D.C. and New York. College basketball should be important here. It has been in the past. The question is will it be in the future, especially as these programs try not to get overrun in the soon-to-be-16-team Big East. Four of the five programs (Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and DePaul) entering the league next year immediately move ahead of the Hoyas and Red Storm, which were picked 11th and 12th in the league this season.

"It's very important for us to be on ESPN, but you get what you earn and, in this situation, we didn't earn the right to be on ESPN," Roberts said. "We are one of the top five winningest programs in America. We should be on, but we've got to improve our talent base and earn it on the floor."

"I can't worry about it, but we do have a good product to sell," Thompson III said. "We're one of the elite academic institutions in the country and in the world. We are in one of the best basketball conferences and we have a rich tradition. We are Georgetown and we have to improve and we have to get better."

St. John's was in the Elite Eight in 1999 under Mike Jarvis. The Red Storm won the NIT in 2003. But the talent level has dipped the past two seasons and the entire program was embroiled in controversy last December when Jarvis abruptly was fired. Things got worse when, in February, players were involved in a sex scandal while on a road trip to Pittsburgh that led to the suspension or dismissal of up to six Johnnies. Another was suspended for academic issues. A failed drug test led to yet another dismissal. To top it off, former player Abe Keita alleged that he received payments, leading to an investigation that isn't complete.

The Red Storm finished the Big East in last place at 1-15, didn't play in the conference tournament and were 6-21 overall. It was the worst record in school history.

"St. John's has always been a winner," Roberts said. "People aren't happy with the record but St. John's was only a year away from winning the NIT. It's not like I'm coming into a program that has had 12 straight losing seasons. St. John's is synonymous with winning and it can happen again with the right players."

And, you could argue, the right coach.

The Red Storm took a gamble on Roberts, because he was an assistant, mostly in the Midwest under Bill Self coaching at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. They interviewed Matt Doherty, the former national coach of the year from North Carolina. There was a push to hire Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzales. There were plenty of other big names that were bandied about, but none were interested or, perhaps, the Red Storm weren't interested in them.

Roberts is from Queens and that certainly helped. He once coached at Queens College. He still had strong ties to New York and it showed in his recruiting -- witness his getting UConn's Charlie Villanueva to first commit to Illinois before that staff left for Kansas.

So, Roberts structured his staff with New York-area guys in Glenn Braica (Queens College '88), Chuck Martin (Monmouth '93) and Fred Quartlebaum (Fordham '89). He reached out to New York City high school and area AAU coaches, and just a few weeks ago, hosted a clinic.

St. John's is synonymous with winning and it can happen again with the right players.
Norm Roberts

"I got this job because of my ties to New York and they really wanted to hire someone with roots here," Roberts said. "Hiring someone younger (39) made sense because of the amount of energy it will take here. St. John's is the New York school, the big school in New York City. We need everyone here to help us get it back. We play in Madison Square Garden. It's New York."

Georgetown is D.C. George Washington would love to claim the city, and, at times, so would Maryland, but the Hoyas are the symbol in the nation's capital.

Georgetown made the Sweet 16 in 2001, but that was its only appearance in Craig Esherick's six years. Last season, the Hoyas finished 13-15 overall, 4-12 in the Big East. Over the past three seasons, the talent level has dropped precipitously. Players transferred, like guard Tony Bethel, who ended up at N.C. State. Coaches departed, including Ronnie Thompson, the current head coach's brother, who left for Arkansas.

Even though Esherick, John Thompson's longtime assistant, was handpicked for the job, he clearly had lost the affection of the hardcore fans who didn't dispute a change. There really was only one person to hire and that was JT3. He was a successful coach at Princeton, guiding the Tigers, his alma mater, to two NCAAs in four seasons.

But the Hoyas, like the Red Storm, took their sweet time. St. John's had all season to mull over a replacement for Jarvis. Georgetown didn't have as many months, but took too long into the April recruiting season and seriously impeded the Hoyas' ability to sign a few standout players for this season.

The problem was the Hoyas hadn't gone through a coaching search since they hired Thompson in 1972. They didn't know what it took, hitting Thompson III with a low figure that ultimately came up. They also had to increase the funding around the program.

"We had to discuss everything, not just about coaching," Thompson III said. "I'm doing this because I like to win. I'm leaving the place that was home. I met my wife there. Princeton is home to me. The discussions had to be made before I came here because we didn't want to come here and be severely handicapped."

While St. John's is finishing a new practice facility and coaching offices that will be ready by next season, nothing is changing at Georgetown's on-campus McDonough Gym.

"When I walked in here, they were the same offices I remember since I was six," JT3 said.

To decorate, he kept up one of the most striking photos in college basketball history -- his father, walking off the court in protest of Prop 48. He added one of his former coach, Princeton's Pete Carril, wearing his typical disgusted look as he coached his meticulous offense.

"They're both very similar," JT3 said. "One is a little white guy who knows offense. The other is a big black guy who knows defense. [But] their work ethic is the same. They both work very, very hard."

There are a few knick-knacks, none more prized than a ticket stub from the Feb. 9, 1999 Penn-Princeton game when the Tigers were down 40-13 in the second half before rallying for a 50-49 win.

But the most important thing he did was to create an open meeting room for the coaches. At Princeton, there is only one room from Carril's regime down to Carmody to Thompson to Joe Scott.

"That's where we'll spend much of the day," JT3 said. "We all have separate offices but there is one central room where there is a main television and a board and tapes and all of the editing stations. At this time of the year, that's where we're going to be."

At this time of year, both teams could use as much help as possible. The Red Storm has to get better fast, but it's not going to happen this season. St. John's is expected to sign five players during the November signing period that begins Wednesday, including five-star prep Anthony Mason Jr. out of Memphis, according to Dave Telep's Scouthoops.com. The Red Storm lost JC forward Jermaine Maybank for the season when he tore his patella tendon going up for a dunk last weekend after a scrimmage.

"He was the one guy that had already bought into what we were doing," Roberts said. "He was our heart and soul and could play the one, two or three. It's not going to be easy without him."

John Thompson III
JT3 is back at home, even if he left his "home" at Princeton.

Without Maybank, the Red Storm will lean heavily on point guard Daryll Hill and will need even more out of forward Lamont Hamilton. The reality is this team could finish last in the Big East.

Georgetown is just getting back sophomore guard Ray Reed from a broken foot. That's been the only hiccup so far. The Hoyas have legit talents in point guard Ashanti Cook, forward Brandon Bowman and senior Darrel Owens. Freshman center Roy Hibbert is a massive man at 7-2, 272, and could develop into a force at some point. But the Hoyas have no bench and the game is not four-on-four. The Hoyas are expected to sign at least three players in the next week, as the coaching staff looks for the players that fit their system.

JT3 said he's still figuring out how he wants to play at Georgetown. He will use the Princeton offense, but would love to have it be at a higher athletic level with all five of his position players able to pass, dribble and shoot. The Hoyas don't have that yet.

Georgetown had to hire a coach with a dominant personality. Thompson III is different than his father, but he's very much the lead coach in a much more socialist environment where every coach has a voice.

"I am what I am," JT3 said. "There's no doubt who is in charge. I'm not patient and hopefully I won't need to be. We've got a lot of work to do."

He talks to his father every day. He speaks with his brother Ronnie nearly every day. And he talks to Carril every few weeks.

Roberts said he's not going to lie and says he knows what the pressure will be like at St. John's and in New York City. JT3's lineage ensures he understands the importance of a renaissance.

"I came here to make it happen," JT3 said. "It's essential that we're one of those programs [that matters]. I didn't take this job just to take it. It's important to me, to this institution, to this city for me to be successful here."

Two coaches. Two iconic basketball schools. The same task. Make their programs matter again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.