Oct. 17, 2008
PHLADELPHIA - Saint Joseph's returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2007-08 as a resilient group battled through a rollercoaster season to reach the Atlantic 10 championship game and earn the program's fifth NCAA bid under head coach Phil Martelli. The squad was a balanced one with four double-figure scorers, paced by a pair of seniors - Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson - who upped their level of play for their final seasons.
Heading into 2008-09, the Hawks have three starters back from that team, including one of the Atlantic 10's top players in Ahmad Nivins. But to Martelli, that doesn't mean too much, unless the Hawks don't develop individually.
"Improvement, improvement, improvement - and I'm talking about individual guys. Each guy has got to get better, even the returning starters," said the coach, now entering his 14th season. "To me, it's not any one guy or any aspect of our game. It's a total improvement that's needed. Because where we are today, or where we were at the end of last year, that won't be good enough."
But with the three starters back in the fold - Nivins, Tasheed Carr and Darrin Govens - along with sixth man Garrett Williamson, the Hawks do have a core group that battled the ups and downs of last season, and can use that experience to their benefit.
"I think what the players can take away from last season is the idea of balance and how balanced play allowed all of us to achieve. Also, the idea of being down, as we were late in the year and the idea of fighting through with regard to the A-10 Tournament," said Martelli. "I hope that they took with them the disappointment of not winning the A-10 championship - of getting there and not finishing the job. To me, all of those things are worthwhile."
Nivins will undoubtedly be one of the keys to the Hawks' success in 2008-09. The two-time All-Atlantic 10 selection has showed his potential to dominate on numerous occasions. The 6-9 senior posted averages of 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, finishing second to Calathes in both categories. Nivins averaged less than eight shots per game last year, so the Hawks will need to get him the ball more this season. He'll also need to grab extra rebounds due to the departures of Calathes (7.5 rpg) and Ferguson (4.8 rpg).
"Ahmad needs to be a better rebounder. His maturity level has gotten better but that's got to continue. He's got to be in the discussion for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year," said the coach.
The starter at the point, Carr made an impact in his first year with the Hawks after transferring from Iowa State. Carr is a vocal player who earned respect for his leadership skills even before the season began when the Hawks voted him co-captain. The 6-4 senior averaged 10.8 points and 5.6 assists, which was one of the top numbers in the league. Carr showed the ability to run the offense but will be counted on to add even more scoring this year.
"Tasheed needs to be better - he needs to be a better leader, a better shooter and a better teammate," said Martelli.
Govens started every game at shooting guard and displayed a smooth stroke. Although his final average was just below 10 points (9.8), the 6-1 guard notched double digits in 16 games. The Hawks will be looking for more offense from the junior this year, and he could be one of SJU's top 3-point threats.
Williamson, who was a starter as a freshman, embraced his role as the sixth man and provided an intensity unmatched by any player on the team, especially on the defensive end. The team's best perimeter defender, Williamson was not a force offensively, but will look to reap the benefits of working hard on his shooting in the off-season.
The graduation of Calathes, Ferguson and reserve Arvydas Lidzius open up many opportunities for the young squad.
Sophomore Idris Hilliard will have the chance to earn a spot in the frontcourt. A good rebounder and inside scorer, the 6-7 forward saw action in every game but one last season.
Senior Edwin Lashley and sophomore Charoy Bentley will each be looking for more playing time in the backcourt and could find it if they can provide consistent perimeter shooting. Junior walk-on C.J. Brown provides energy and depth to the Hawks. Martelli welcomes a unique group of five freshmen, each of whom brings different strengths and skills to the Hawks.
Chris Prescott, a 6-2 guard from Northwest Catholic High School in Connecticut, is a high-scoring perimeter shooter (22.0 ppg) who could help the Hawks immediately. Prescott was a four-year starter and earned All-State honors twice. "Chris was an extraordinarily well-coached player in high school. He has a glint in his eye that I like from that guard spot. He reminds me a little of Terrell Myers (SJU 1994-97)," said Martelli. "Chris has very good leadership ability and he's hopefully going to help us with long-distance shooting, which will be a question mark with this team."
Bryant Irwin, a 6-8 forward from Bridgeport High School was West Virginia's Gatorade Player of the Year. With an impressive 31.0 points and 11.0 rebounds as a senior, the All-State First Team selection is a versatile player who could help in a variety of ways.
"Bryant has a combination of inside-outside skills. Whether he's big enough for those skills to provide an impact, we have to find that out. Certainly we're going to look at his ability to guard at this level," said Martelli.
A.J. Rogers is a 6-6 forward from St. Anthony, the nation's top-ranked program in 2008 that posted a 32-0 record. A fiercely competitive player from Rosedale, N.Y., Rogers averaged 7.0 points and 8.0 rebounds, but did all of the small things for the country's best high school team.
"A.J. is coming here with a solid foundation that has no cracks. We're going to expect him to be a face-up defender and face-up offensive player who shares the ball," said Martelli.
Temi Adebayo is a 6-10 center from the Montrose Christian program that has produced numerous Division I players, including 2008 SJU graduate Arvydas Lidzius and 2007 NCAA Player of the Year Kevin Durant. Having come to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2007, he saw very limited action as a senior due to a medical condition. A player with true "upside," Martelli feels he has tremendous untapped potential, although he has shown impressive shot-blocking ability already. "Temi is like clay and we hopefully will be able to develop him into something special," said the coach.
Mike Auriemma joins the squad as a walk-on. The 6-1 guard played at East Catholic High School in Connecticut, while spending last year at The Hun School in New Jersey. Son of Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, he averaged 20 points as a senior at East Catholic while earning All-State First Team honors. Auriemma will add depth and a solid work ethic in the backcourt."Mike is truly a coach's son. He loves the challenge that he will be embarking upon," Martelli said.
Todd O'Brien, a 6-11 center, joins the program after transferring from Bucknell University. O'Brien, from Garden Spot High School (Pa.), will practice with the Hawks this season and have three years of eligibility beginning in 2009-10. Although it's too early to tell which players will step up and fill the roles, Martelli doesn't see any changes in the style that has characterized Saint Joseph's basketball.
"Balance is certainly going to be a style of play for us. We need five guys on the floor who can score the ball. I think we can be better defensively, and we need to be better defensively. We need to have a balance between offense and defense - we're not going to be out-shooting people, we need to be outplaying people. The style for us stays the same - to be highly competitive, share the ball, take your shot when it's available and defend to the best of your ability," explained Martelli.
The schedule will be challenging once again and will be highlighted by SJU's first trip to the 2008 EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Hawks will be part of a top-notch field that includes NCAA Final Four participant North Carolina, NCAA Tournament teams Indiana, Notre Dame, Oregon and Texas, along with Alabama and host Chaminade. The Hawks potentially have 10 teams on the `08-09 slate that participated in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, with games scheduled against Cornell, Siena, Xavier and Villanova. Another unique challenge for the Hawks is that all of their 2008-09 home games will be played at the Palestra, due to the renovation and expansion of Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. Saint Joseph's is familiar with the Palestra, however, usually hosting five or six games there every season.
"Our schedule is going to put us in contention to compete in the Atlantic 10. If you can compete in the Atlantic 10, then you're a team that is talked about nationally," said the coach.
Saint Joseph's will rely on a bevy of strengths that will be necessary to succeed in 2008-09.
"Basically, we have a group that knows how to pick itself up off the mat," Martelli explained. "We came off of a year with no postseason and made the NCAA Tournament. We were in, then we were out of the NCAA Tournament, and then back in again, so the players certainly picked themselves up off the mat.
"I think we also have a team that would be labeled as observant. They saw Pat Calathes struggle for two years and then get to be a first team All-League player. They saw a guy like Rob Ferguson, who had to come outside of his character so that the group's greater good could be served. Those things are positives because we do have an observant group. This is a group that, including the freshmen, you get the feeling that they're appreciative of being here."
Conversely, Martelli points out the team's weaknesses as areas to address prior to the season, as well as during it.
"We know that it'll be inexperience," Martelli conceded. "Certainly our other weaknesses will be the rebounding and where it's going to come from, along with outside shooting. Pat and Ferg were good rebounders and good shooters. But that's the beauty of this program. And the excitement's going to be in who seizes the opportunity," said Martelli.
Martelli and the Hawks will rely on their seniors to bring along the newcomers into the Saint Joseph's tradition. A tough schedule and a full slate of games at the historic Palestra should leave Hawk fans with plenty to be excited about in 2008-09.