Dec. 19, 2006
By Brian Ferrie
Saint Joseph's has long been known for its great guard play. From Jimmy Lynam and Billy Oakes to Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, guards and Hawk Hill go together like soft pretzels and brown mustard. What has been less common in the program's storied history, however, are dominant big men.
Any college coach will tell you that blue-chip center and power forward prospects are hard to find in the high school ranks. Those that are out there almost invariably go to schools in the BCS power conferences, where they believe they will get the most attention and publicity on the way to their hoped-for jump to the NBA.
That's why Hawks fans were so elated when 6-9 Ahmad Nivins, the #19 ranked center in the class of 2005, committed to SJU in September 2004. Numerous colleges were competing for the talented pivot from renowned basketball powerhouse St. Anthony in Jersey City, NJ, including many high-profile schools.
According to Nivins, his decision came down to Saint Joseph's and Big East schools Rutgers, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh.
"I had an official visit planned for Pitt after my visit to St. Joe's," he said. "But once I visited here, the other schools never had a chance. I knew this was where I wanted to be."
Apart from his great relationship with the coaching staff and appreciation for the campus, Nivins cited closeness to home as one edge that Hawk Hill had over Pittsburgh. But Rutgers and Seton Hall would have been even closer to home, so what else helped tip the scales in SJU's favor?
"I had talked to the coaches at Rutgers and Seton Hall, and nothing against them, they definitely wanted me. But with Coach Martelli, it was different. He did a home visit and came to visit me at St. Anthony. I felt that St. Joe's 'needed' me, didn't just want me."
His junior year at St. Anthony, 2003-04, Nivins was a first-year transfer student from Hudson County Prep who helped St. Anthony to a 30-0 record, culminating in the school's ninth New Jersey Tournament of Champions title under legendary Coach Bob Hurley. After committing to Saint Joseph's, Nivins began his senior season. Playing a more prominent role, he averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and five assists per game against St. Anthony's always-difficult schedule of opponents, including nationally ranked high school teams. When the prep star arrived on Hawk Hill in the fall of 2005, he felt "it was a place where I could make an immediate contribution."
He was right. Nivins played a key role as a true freshman for last season's team, which went 19-14 overall, 9-7 in the conference, and advanced to the second round of the NIT. Starting 12 games, the St. Anthony product appeared in 30 games overall, averaging 22.7 minutes, 6.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 points and shooting a stellar 61.3 percent from the field.
But that was nothing compared to his impact so far in 2006-07, his sophomore season. Having packed on some muscle since his arrival on campus, Nivins is now listed at 235 pounds and has taken advantage of his added strength, experience, and playing time to become a monster in the middle.
As of Dec. 14, Nivins had started all nine games and led the team in several statistical categories, including minutes per game (33.3), rebounds (7.1), blocks (1.6), points (16.0) and field-goal percentage (61.2). He was also second on the team in steals at 1.6 per game.
His strong effort has helped the Hawks get off to a 5-4 start, despite a rotation relying heavily on freshmen.
"I actually thought we would struggle more to this point than we have, knowing we had to depend on youth so much," Nivins said.
He has been impressed by the play of this much-hyped group of recruits, which includes guards Jawan Carter, Darrin Govens, D.J. Rivera and Garrett Williamson, along with forward Rockwell Moody. Carter, Govens, Rivera and Williamson have all averaged at least 21.7 minutes per game.
"The freshmen are as advertised," Nivins related. "They're definitely talented, but it's great that they all want to learn too. Not just from the coaches, but me being kind of an older guy, when I say something, they have open ears. They're progressing and I hope they can play even better the rest of the season."
As for that rest of the season, Nivins feels the team is capable of competing for the Atlantic 10 championship, despite the youthful makeup of its roster - the seven players averaging at least 20 minutes per game include the four freshman guards, Nivins, and juniors Rob Ferguson and Pat Calathes.
"I think that's definitely a realistic goal," he said. "We have a lot of talent. Coach always tells us we have no idea how good we can become. Once we recognize that, the sky's the limit."
Noting that the Hawks have been competitive in nearly every game this season, Nivins does not think the four losses have been because of a talent deficit.
"I just think as a team, we have to have more of a 'now' mentality," he said. "There's a lot of fight in this group, but sometimes it comes a little too late in the game. We need to act instead of react."
As for himself, Nivins believes that recognition on the All-Atlantic 10 team is also a realistic goal this season. When asked what he thinks his greatest strengths on the basketball court are, the sophomore commented, "Probably my heart. There's a difference between your heart and your head. There have been times when I've been taken out of my game mentally, but I'm never scared of somebody out there - I always stand up to whoever I'm playing against. Physically, I think I'm pretty fast for a guy my size. I can rebound and block shots, and my athleticism is definitely a strong point."
Nivins also derives strength from his family. "I don't know where I'd be without my parents and sister," he said. "I'm a family guy and a religious guy."
Although the sophomore thinks he has played well so far in his time on Hawk Hill, he wants to do more.
"I think I need to be a better teammate," he said. "I'm pretty good now, but in order for us to be really successful I think we need more from me. Just from the first nine games this season, I can see that - because we're such a young group, I really need to step up."
Overall, Nivins sees bright days ahead for the Hawks and is happy with his choice of SJU over the many other suitors he had in high school.
"By the time I committed, I had already been to a couple games here and I still feel now the way I did then - that this [atmosphere] is crazy," he said with a laugh. "It's just great, all the people pulling for you. As much as I enjoyed it as a fan, it's even better when you're one of the guys on the court. I love playing here."
Hawk fans love having him here. As fun as it is to watch great guard play, it becomes a whole lot easier to win when you have that great big man too.