Jan. 21, 2009
by Pete Spiewak '10
A year ago, Idris Hilliard's role on the Saint Joseph's men's basketball team was very simple: come off of the bench and give the team a jolt of energy. Hilliard rarely played more than a few minutes at a time, but when he was in the game, head coach Phil Martelli knew what he was getting: defense and rebounding.
Hilliard knew his role, and played within it.
"Last year, I was the `energy guy,'" Hilliard said.
During that season, Hilliard was a small cog in Martelli's offensive scheme. The Hawks didn't rely on the first-year forward to score much. He was not very aggressive on the offensive end; in fact, the 6'7 forward was very reserved. Hilliard was a pass-first player who rarely took a shot that wasn't a layup.
With scoring threats Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson on the team last season, Hilliard didn't have to score much. Now that those two have graduated, the Hawks needed Hilliard to shoulder more of the scoring load--and he has done just that.
It has taken some time for Hilliard to get used to being a full-time player at the college level. When he entered games during his freshman campaign, Hilliard would go all out during the short spans of time that he was on the court. This year, he is averaging over 28 minutes per game, so he had to make a change in his approach.
"In the beginning of the season I was getting tired by the second media timeout," he said. "Now I know I have to pick my spots."
Over the past eight games, Hilliard has scored 11.3 points per game, more than double his output in the first eight games when he only averaged 5.6 points per game. His rebounding has also improved. Through the first eight games, Hilliard averaged 4.1 rebounds per game. Since then, he has grabbed 7.8 rebounds per game over the last eight contests.
Hilliard exploded for 20 points and nine rebounds against Siena in late December, and had his first career double-double in a win over Cornell earlier in the season, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 boards.
Hilliard attributes some of his success to playing alongside Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate and teammate Ahmad Nivins.
"Teams are doubling and tripling [Nivins]," Hilliard said. "All of the attention that is being paid to him definitely benefits me."
But it's a two-way street. Hilliard's new-found confidence has helped him become a force in his own right on the offensive end, helping to draw the defense away from Nivins. Hilliard is shedding the label as a one-dimensional, scrappy inside player. Since the midpoint of the season, Hilliard has expanded his offensive game to the 18-foot area, showing a strong midrange game. He even converted a jump shot with his foot on the three-point line against St. Bonaventure.
"That's one of the main reasons I've worked on my jumper" Hilliard said. "I'm trying to get Ahmad some space down low."
Hilliard's team-first mentality and willingness to do the "dirty work" makes the forward from Roselle, N.J. more valuable than any stat line could indicate.
The sophomore has taken over Ferguson's spot as starting power forward, yet is almost the polar opposite of the sharpshooter from Florida.
"Ferg was much more of a shooter than me," Hilliard said. "I like slashing to the basket."
Ferguson shot 41.4% from downtown during his four-year career at Saint Joseph's. Hilliard isn't a three-point threat like Ferguson was, but he brings much more of a physical presence to the game and is a strong defender. Trying to fill the void left by Ferguson, who was a three-year starter and is a member of the 1,000-point club, is no easy task, and might have played a role in Hilliard's inconsistent start to the season.
"I was feeling pressured," Hilliard said about the early portion of season. "I was trying to live up to expectations of something I wasn't."
It took a pre-game talk from Martelli to get him on track.
"Before the Villanova game, coach Martelli approached me, and encouraged me to have fun and be confident" he said. "Since then, I've just started playing my game, and it has worked out so far."
And toughness is Hilliard's game. His rugged style is complemented nicely by his high basketball IQ. Night in and night out he battles the opposing teams' power forwards, who usually outsize him, and recently he has been getting the better of many of his opponents thanks to his never-give-up attitude and his fundamentally sound post game.
The Hawks are 9-7 going into the showdown with Duquesne, sporting a 3-0 conference record and a four-game winning streak. Saint Joseph's is headed in the right direction in part because Hilliard has raised his level of play, but the power forward says his team isn't satisfied.
"We're happy we won those games, but we're not jumping for joy," Hilliard said. "There were a lot of games this year that we should have won but didn't."
The improvement in Hilliard's game can be attributed to his work ethic. He has dedicated himself to becoming a better shooter. Before and after every practice Hilliard is in the gym working on his jump shot. While at home in the offseason, he works out with a group of players that includes former Hawk point guard Dwayne Lee.
Hilliard attended The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., where he played alongside center Will Martell, who now plays for Atlantic-10 foe Rhode Island, as well as Lance Goulbourne of Vanderbilt. While being recruited by teams in the Big East and ACC, Hilliard led his school to the New Jersey Prep A championship, beating perennial powerhouses St. Benedict's Prep and Blair Academy along the way.
The sophomore entertained offers from other schools like Rutgers and Marquette, but in the end he chose Saint Joseph's because of the loyalty that was shown to him by Martelli. While still undecided the summer before his senior season Hilliard was blown away by Martelli's commitment to him.
"Coach Martelli watched almost every single one of my AAU games the summer before my senior year," he said. "Not one of the assistants--it was always coach Martelli. So I thought `If their head coach is here at every game, they must really want me.'"
And now Martelli's loyalty to Hilliard is paying off.