Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Juxtaposition is often the cruelest of critics.

It has been nearly four years since John Thompson III and Norm Roberts inherited a pair of crumbling Big East basketball programs with the similar mandate of returning two of the league’s founding members to national prominence.

Thompson has swept away the spiraling ignominy of the Craig Esherick era at Georgetown with a 46-month march to the top of the league standings.

As a result, the No. 11 Hoyas (22-4, 12-3 Big East) are positioned to execute an encore of last season’s conference title and first Final Four appearance since 1985.

Roberts, on the other hand, hasn’t extracted St. John’s from the Big East basement in his four seasons in Queens, N.Y. The Red Storm (10-16, 4-10) stagger into tonight’s matchup against the Hoyas on a four-game losing streak and tied for 13th in a league that invites only 12 teams to its conference tournament.

Georgetown has remained the Big East’s elite team since Thompson’s arrival; no league team boasts more conference victories over the last three-plus seasons than Georgetown (43).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, St. John’s can claim only 19 Big East victories and no postseason appearances in Roberts’ three-plus seasons.

Among the 11 programs that have continued to be in the league since Roberts’ arrival, only Rutgers has fewer victories (14), and second-year coach Fred Hill has returned some hope to the Scarlet Knights with the anticipated arrival of St. Anthony’s guard Mike Rosario, the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Rutgers.

St. John’s, meanwhile, hasn’t signed a single high school player for next season.

“We’re trying to rebuild in the best conference in America,” Roberts said last week to an antagonistic audience on New York’s WFAN. “Our eight freshmen are going to be good. … People have to be patient.”

Roberts and Co. might have overstepped the parameters of that patience in the last meeting between the two teams.

A month ago on what one sportswriter called “one of the saddest nights in the history of Madison Square Garden,” Georgetown blasted St. John’s 74-42. The humbling marked the Red Storm’s most lopsided Big East loss.

Thompson did his best to dismiss the one-sided result as a freak occurrence, but both Roberts and his team were shaken after the rout.

Said Roberts, who accepted full responsibility for the loss: “I am angry at myself. I am angry at the whole situation.”

Roberts is far from alone in that feeling. After Duke ran the Red Storm out of Durham 86-56 on Saturday, St. John’s athletic director Chris Monasch was asked whether Roberts would return for next season’s fifth and final year of his contract:

Said Monasch: “I’m not willing to pass judgment on a season until it’s complete.”

With that somewhat transparent lack of an endorsement behind him, Stewart and his team will step on the floor at Verizon Center tonight seeking the affirmation of an upset. Perhaps this tale of two coaches has a dual moral:

Few high-profile professions are more stress-filled or more difficult, particularly when the task involves resurrecting a major conference program. Just ask Matt Doherty, Quin Snyder, Tommy Amaker, Steve Alford, Kelvin Sampson, Billy Gillespie or Sidney Lowe.

Today’s game

ST. JOHN’S (10-16, 4-10) AT NO. 11 GEORGETOWN (22-4, 12-3 BIG EAST)

When: 9 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/Radio: ESPNU, AM-980

Outlook: St. John’s limps into the District hoping to reclaim some dignity from Georgetown, which handed the Red Storm their worst loss in Big East history Jan. 30 at Madison Square Garden. This is a difficult matchup for the Red Storm, who lack the bodies to bang in the paint with Georgetown center Roy Hibbert (13.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.35 blocks) and the perimeter players to exploit Georgetown’s weakness (backcourt ball-handling and defensive quickness). Junior forward Anthony Mason Jr. (13.2 points) has had some explosive games, but the Red Storm feature the league’s lowest scoring offense (58.3 points) and second-worst defense, allowing opponents to shoot better than 46 percent.

Barker Davis

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