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.'"