Phil Martelli

Back from a lost season, Oliva could be X-factor for St. Joe's

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Back from a lost season, Oliva could be X-factor for St. Joe's

The Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball team has had to deal with a nasty case of the injury bug as standouts Shavar Newkirk, Lamarr Kimble and James Demery all missed extended time last season and rising star Charlie Brown broke his wrist this preseason.

But with most of the injury talk on Hawk Hill centered around those guys, some might forget that another key player was out for the entire 2016-17 season: Pierfrancesco Oliva.

Better known as “Checco,” the Italian-born forward was a freshman starter on the Hawks’ 2015-16 A-10 championship team before having surgery last June to repair a chronic knee condition. Now, the redshirt sophomore could be the X-factor on a St. Joe’s squad that, if healthy, can do some serious damage in the Atlantic 10 and beyond.

“Checco is a brilliant offensive mind,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said from the team’s media day Thursday. “He has to work on putting the ball in the basket, but he just seems a little bit older. He’s only a junior but he just has an older view of the game. And there’s experience there. He started on an Atlantic 10 champion team, and he played 14 minutes in two NCAA games. So he gets it.”

Oliva agrees that he can add veteran leadership to the squad — an exciting prospect for Hawks fans considering he still has three more years of college eligibility remaining.

“It seems weird to say since I only played one year but I think I can bring a lot of experience,” he said. “I played with guys like DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles, who are playing at a high level right now. We had that winning mentality and that’s what we need this year in order to be successful.”

Everything was indeed great for Oliva as a freshman after he made St. Joe’s his college choice after coming to New Jersey from Italy and starring for Bergen Catholic. He started 30 games in a loaded lineup that featured Bembry and Miles, averaging 4.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

Things weren’t as good a couple of months after St. Joe’s took top-seeded Oregon down to the wire in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, as Oliva could barely get out of bed for about four months during a very “slow process for rehab” over the summer.

But during that time, he became a student of the game by watching a lot of basketball, including many St. Joe’s games. And he read the motivational book Energy Bus in an attempt to stay positive.

Now, he feels better both physically and mentally as he prepares for the 2017-18 season, which begins for the Hawks at Toledo next Saturday.

“He is somewhat like a kid on Christmas, that he's back out here,” Martelli said. “He really gets bothered if someone asks him how he feels or if he wants to take a set off or anything like that. He's a really good basketball player, and it's going to help the two big young guys. They are going to learn that this is the way you can play as a multiple-skills forward.”

Martelli added that practices can be interesting with Oliva because he “can’t say anything to him without him responding to me — and I kind of like that.” For Oliva, it’s important to have that kind of open dialogue, even if it’s not something other players are used to seeing.

“He considers me a high IQ player and I consider myself a high IQ player,” Oliva said. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything he has to say. And when I don’t agree, then I ask him and see what he’s saying. I’m not the kind of person who just follows orders. I’ve never been like that when it comes to basketball.”

But the 6-foot-8 forward added he has a “good bond” with Martelli. And he has an equally good relationship with his teammates, many of whom refer to him as an “Italian from the Philly hood” because sometimes he’ll say something in slang and “they’ll start laughing.”

Being on the court with their Italian teammate is just as much fun.

“With Checco, I call him ‘Hawk Eyes’ because he sees everything,” Demery said. “You think he doesn’t see you but he does. I said, ‘You saw me on that play?’ and he’s like, ‘I got you, bro. I see you. Just be ready.’”

Now, a healthy Oliva and the rest of his teammates are ready for a big season.

“I think we can surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve been in the gym together since the summer and we know what we can do. But it’s easy to talk. We’re gonna be able to show it in a week.”

After disastrous season, St. Joe's picked to finish 3rd in Atlantic 10

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After disastrous season, St. Joe's picked to finish 3rd in Atlantic 10

Despite coming off an 11-20 season, Saint Joseph's was picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll released this week.

It's the highest the Hawks have been picked to finish since 2012-13 when they were the preseason favorite.

St. Joe's went just 4-14 in the conference last season after winning the A-10 with a 13-5 conference record the previous year. The Hawks have won the A-10 twice in the last four seasons.

Phil Martelli enters his 23rd season as head coach, and he has all five starters coming back. The Hawks lost some key players last season. Shavar Newkirk was averaging 20.3 points per game until he tore his ACL in the conference opener. Lamarr Kimble was averaging 15.5 points and leading the team in assists when he fractured his foot in February.

Newkirk was named to the preseason All-Conference Second Team; Kimble and Charlie Brown Jr. were third-teamers.

St. Joe's begins its season on Nov. 11 at Toledo, with the Hawks' home opener coming the following Saturday, Nov. 18 against Princeton (see schedule).

St. Joe's eyes collective step forward after injury-plagued 2016-17

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St. Joe's eyes collective step forward after injury-plagued 2016-17

Just 18 months ago, Saint Joseph’s was only a possession away from pulling even with No. 1 seed Oregon in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

The following season, the Hawks won only 11 games, 17 less than the season prior that resulted in an Atlantic 10 championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.

The difference in success has a lot to do with the fact that St. Joe’s simply didn’t have the bodies to compete on a nightly basis.

Five Hawks missed at least seven games because of injury in 2016-17. That includes key cogs such as senior guard Shavar Newkirk (19 games, torn left ACL), senior forward James Demery (10 games, stress fracture in left foot) and junior guard Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble (seven games, left foot fracture).

In addition, forward Lorenzo Edwards missed all but one game because of shoulder surgery, while forward Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva missed the entire season after having knee surgery.

The Hawks have healed and now return their top-six scorers from a season ago, plus four guys that played at least 14 minutes in that tournament loss to Oregon. However, while a full roster is certainly a benefit, head coach Phil Martelli assured that merely having healthy players won’t turn around the team’s fortunes.

“We are returning starters from an 11-win season, so it isn’t that important,” Martelli said. “The way I have described this — when you have the year we had, you can get stripes. You can have a guy that gets a 20-point game, but it’s just a stripe. You only get a tattoo when your team wins. We have guys that understand that.

“I like the pieces that we have, but the pieces have to fit to where there is role acceptance. Who plays well with whom and when you are told what you get, will you maximize your 12 or 16 minutes on the floor?”

The roles for the backcourt tandem of Kimble and Newkirk are pretty clear.

While Newkirk continues to work his way back from ACL surgery by doing agility and stamina drills with the training staff, Kimble has returned in what he hopes is an even better version of himself.

“I definitely learned that I needed to improve my game,” said Kimble, who finished second on the team behind Newkirk with 15.5 points per game. “This summer, I got in the gym and slimmed down about 10 pounds and I feel like I am a step quicker and a step stronger.

“Last season was very humbling for us. Hopefully, we will be able to change things around and everyone will come in with a new mindset this year. You always need that balance between veterans and the young guys to keep everyone on a straight path.”

Martelli has been impressed with Kimble’s improvement as a basketball player and a leader.

“Lamarr has matured in the way he is going about his practice but making sure his team is organized and set,” Martelli said. “He is attentive to detail and I am a big fan of him as a leader, human being and as a player.”

Much like Kimble and Newkirk, Demery saw a big jump in scoring in 2016-17 before being sidelined. He posted 14.5 points per game and was the Hawks’ leading rebounder with 6.5 a night.

Despite the personal numbers, Demery is ready to move on from what he called a “down year.”

“We are not trying to repeat 2016-17 this season,” Demery said. “We have strong team chemistry and the young guys look up to myself and 'Fresh' because we have been in the ring and know what it takes to win an A-10 title.”

When prompted about what it will take for St. Joe’s to return to form, Martelli was direct that everything must be about the group and not individuals.

"We need to rebound and grasp the idea of role acceptance,” Martelli said. “We need to grow in the idea that we have to respect the 'we' and forget about the 'me.'"