Our City 6 men's basketball previews continue with a look at St. Joe's. Sunday, we looked at La Salle. Monday, we looked at Temple and Tuesday, Villanova. Tomorrow, Drexel. Above, our Big Man on Campus Series continues with Hawks guard DeAndre Bembry.
In the offseason, Phil Martelli’s grandson was a superhero.
Batman. Captain America. Whatever costume the precocious 5-year-old could get his hands on.
But a few weeks ago, young Philip Stephen Martelli idled up to his grandfather — the head coach of the Saint Joseph’s University men’s basketball team — and asked if it was true that college hoops season was almost here. When the elder Martelli said that it was, the boy changed into a different kind of costume: a sweatsuit. Then, he went into an office and watched game tape.
“I think the superheroes will go the side,” Phil Martelli said, “and coaching the team will come back.”
While it may have gone into hibernation for a few months, the 5-year-old’s obsession with coaching college hoops — he was adorably caught on camera mimicking his grandfather during the 2014 Atlantic 10 tournament — was one of a few magical moments for St. Joe’s last March. So was the Hawks’ surprising run to the A-10 championship that caused their head coach to cry on the Barclays Center court, the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2008, and an overtime loss to eventual national champion UConn in the Big Dance (though that last one still stings).
Now that a new season is here — St. Joe’s opens at home against Farleigh Dickinson on Friday — the excitement among the entire Martelli family is once again palpable.
But if the Hawks hope to return to the national spotlight in March, they’ll have to do it with a mostly new team as the three star players from last year’s championship squad — guard Langston Galloway and forwards Ronald Roberts Jr. and Halil Kanacevic — have all graduated.
“This has been different but it really has been kind of exhilarating in a way,” Martelli said. “I really do miss Halil telling me what I should be doing and what I should be saying. I do miss that part. But they’re such nice kids and they’re really good teammates that it’s been easy to deal with them.”
Galloway, Roberts and Kanacevic all had tremendous all-conference careers, so losing them will be a big blow. But the Hawks do have at least two reasons to be excited: a veteran point guard in senior Chris Wilson and a rising star in sophomore DeAndre Bembry.
Both started all 34 games for the Hawks last season, combining for more than 20 points per game. And both were named captains for the 2014-15 season, with Bembry becoming the program’s first sophomore captain since 1936-37.
The only reason for concern is whether too much is being asked of Bembry, a fantastic swingman with an equally fantastic 'fro.
“He’s an old spirit,” Martelli said. “He’s a basketball player and that’s how he wants to be seen. And he’s not afraid to take on the responsibility of being the first sophomore captain here since 1936 and being a defending Atlantic 10 champ. None of that seems to matter to him. But I am concerned. I do have it in the back of my head about holding him to a standard. Am I asking too much?”
One player that should ease some of his burden is freshman James Demery, who arrived on campus with as much hype and expectations as Bembry did last year. The two swingmen have a lot of similarities, too. They’re both 6-foot-6, from North Carolina and are terrific lockdown defenders.
Martelli even said that Demery will defend the opposing team’s top perimeter player, a role in which Bembry thrived last season and won’t necessarily relinquish easily.
“He said Demery might guard the best player, but I’m going to make sure I’m going to get on him most of the time too,” Bembry said. “I love guarding the best players on other teams. We can share it a little bit.”
Bembry and Demery are similar in another way — both need to work on their jump shots. Martelli said he’s been encouraging Demery to take more shots but is already preparing for his team to get much less scoring from behind the arc than last season when Galloway went a blistering 108 for 244 (44 percent) from three-point range.
When asked how the Hawks can replace Galloway’s shooting, Martelli was blunt.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “If you asked me our Achilles heel, it’s perimeter shooting. So we’ve had to change the way we play. We’re going to drive the ball more, make more layups, play a little more aggressively defensively.”
The Hawks certainly have the personnel to be a more aggressive team in the backcourt with Wilson, Bembry and Demery leading the charge. But the team still has a lot of question marks in the frontcourt.
Martelli didn’t reveal who will start, but with Papa Ndao missing the entire season because of an illness, 6-7 junior Isaiah Miles (3.0 ppg) and 6-8 sophomore Javon Baumman (1.5 ppg) figure to get a lot of minutes. West Virginia transfer Aaron Brown could also get some time at the “4,” and freshmen Obi Romeo and redshirt freshman Jai Williams are poised to see some action as well.
For what it’s worth, Wilson has liked what he’s seen from the young big men and predicted a big season for Miles in particular. And he’s counting on them to help him enjoy one more special season before graduating.
“I think the goal is still to win the Atlantic 10 championship and to make it to the NCAA tournament,” Wilson said. “Ever since I’ve been here, I don’t think that goal has ever changed. And I wouldn’t expect it to change now just because we have different pieces.”
Many things will have to go right for the Hawks to recreate the magic of last March, of course. But Martelli and his superhero-turned-coaching-assistant grandson are optimistic.
“Look, everybody loves their team right now,” the St. Joe’s coach said. “But we’re a little further ahead than I would have anticipated. And it’s because of what those guys — Halil and Lang and Ron — left behind in the approach to how you’re supposed to be a St. Joe’s Hawk.”