QUEENS, N.Y. — When St. John’s beat then unbeaten Pittsburgh last season, Norm Roberts knew what it meant. St. John’s was back as a player, at least in the public eye.
“It’s very important to get a win like that,” said Roberts. “We’re used to getting wins like that with our history … but we want to be consistent every night. We’re trying to be consistent with our effort.”
Illinois State would like to take a similar leap today. The Redbirds (2-2) face St. John’s (2-2) in a 6:30 p.m. game at Carnesecca Arena on the Red Storm’s campus.
While ISU has shown signs it is a far different team than last season’s 9-19 bunch, taking down St. John’s in the bright lights of the Big Apple would make a powerful statement.
“As players and a coaching staff, we know we can be really good,” said ISU senior Roberto Fortes. “Everybody out there really doesn’t know what we’ve got. They haven’t seen the best of us. We can compete against anybody as we did against Florida State.
“If we would have kept our lead we could have knocked them down and that would have brought a lot of attention on us. If we can get this win, that would open everyone’s eyes.”
ISU came up short against the Atlantic Coast Conference when it fell to Florida State 73-59 earlier this month. Now the Redbirds, armed with a two-game winning streak and some confidence, line up on the road against the Big East.
Talk about an opportunity for a signature victory.
“When you play a school from a BCS conference, those are always wins that come back at the end of the year. They talk about them when you’re trying to get into postseason,” said ISU coach Porter Moser, who took his team to the ESPN Zone on Times Square for dinner Friday night.
“I know it’s very early for us to be thinking like that, but this could be a win you would look back on.”
These are two different programs than those which met two years ago at Redbird Arena, with ISU earning a 77-69 victory. Only six players will be in uniform tonight from that encounter.
“We’ve come pretty far. The talent level is a lot better,” said Roberts, who was coaching only his fifth game for St. John’s that night in Normal.
Roberts was brought in to clean up the mess left by Mike Jarvis. Roberts was a long-time assistant for Bill Self, serving for three years at Illinois.
When a scandal hit St. John’s, Queens native Roberts was hired to return the seventh winningest program in NCAA history to its glory days.
After suffering through a 9-18 season in 2004-05, the Red Storm went 12-15 last season, highlighted by back-to-back victories against Louisville and Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. St. John’s is back to a full allotment of 13 scholarships and just signed two of the best high school players in talent-rich New York City.
No wonder Roberts believes St. John’s is “moving in the right direction.”
“When you’re at a program with St. John’s tradition you expect to be good and play well every night,” said Roberts. “You expect to play well and hard and represent the university in the right way. When you do that, the wins will happen. All you can control is your effort and focus.”
Like ISU, St. John’s has benefited from going to the junior college ranks.
Guard Avery Patterson was brought in from Iowa Western Community College and has given the Red Storm an outside complement to 6-foot-10 Lamont Hamilton on the inside. Patterson has made 19 of 38 baskets from 3-point range and is the Red Storm’s leading scorer with a 17.0 average.
“He’s as good an outside shooter as we’ll face all year, and he’s got size,” said Moser of the 6-4 Patterson.
Moser knows keeping forwards Greg Dilligard and Anthony Slack out of foul trouble could hold the key to ISU’s chances. They did that for the first time against Cal State Northridge on Monday at Redbird Arena and rolled to an easy 66-44 victory.
While ISU can get up and down the floor in a hurry with Boo Richardson and Dom Johnson leading the way, the Redbirds realize where they need to be good in order to beat teams like St. John’s.
“Our defense is going to carry us a long way,” said Slack. “We emphasize defense three-fourths of practice. As we showed (against Northridge) we can really lock people up when we’re clicking on all assignments on defense.
“If we play defense our offense comes a whole lot easier.”
Illinois State vs. St. John’s
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Site: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, N.Y.
Radio: WJBC-AM (1230)
Records: ISU 2-2; St. John’s 2-2
Series history: ISU leads 1-0 (ISU won 77-69 on Dec. 4, 2004).
Coaches: ISU’s Porter Moser has a 38-53 record in his four seasons and a 92-87 record in seven seasons as a head coach. St. John’s coach Norm Roberts is in his third season with the Red Storm and has a 23-35 record.
About the Red Storm: St. John’s was picked to finish ninth in the 16-team Big East Conference in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll. Lamont Hamilton made the preseason all-Big East first team. The Red Storm, which returns all five starters from last season’s 12-15 squad, is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, falling to Maryland 92-60 in the semifinals and Texas 77-76 in the third-place game. Reserve senior center Aaron Spears, a Chicago Dunbar High School graduate, spent his first two seasons at Illinois with Coach Norm Roberts, who was an assistant under Bill Self.
Next up: ISU meets Cal State Sacramento at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Redbird Arena.
Compiled by Jim Benson