Healthy Saint Joseph's poised for NCAA Tournament return

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Healthy Saint Joseph's poised for NCAA Tournament return

How does a team that went 11-20 overall and 4-14 in the conference head into the following season with high expectations and a predicted third-place finish in the always-competitive Atlantic 10?

That’s what happens when just about all of your best players are returning from injuries that derailed your 2016-17 campaign but bring great hope and promise for a new season.

“We had the season that we had, and there’s no excuses for it,” longtime Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “It’s what we had. We had six games that we lost in the last minute-and-a-half or two minutes. We had games that we couldn’t lose — like, if you looked at the script, you’d say that we had to win that game, and we didn’t win them.

“To this group’s credit, every one of them is a little bit better than they were at the end of last year. … There’s definitely a hunger in all of us, starting last spring, to get it right.”

Martelli may say there were no excuses, as coaches tend to do, but the truth is you can easily find a lot of them. Starting with the season-ending injury to Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva in the preseason, the Hawks seemed to be almost cursed all year as star guards Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble were also lost for the season, while forward James Demery missed 10 games.

Newkirk, who was averaging over 20 points per game before he went down with a torn ACL, is questionable to start in Saturday’s season-opening game at Toledo as he just returned to practice following a long rehab stint.

But when he does return, he should once again be one of the top guards in the conference and perhaps even form one of the country’s best backcourts with Kimble.

“One of the beautiful things is that [last] Tuesday, he fell down,” Martelli said. “He hit the floor, and everybody in the gym sucked the air in, and he got up, and everybody breathed. And I said, ‘Great, we’re on, so now I can bark at you about not going to the right position or the right angle or whatever it would be.’ 

“I don’t know what he’ll look like, but he’s a senior, he’s an A-10 champion, and he started in this league. He knows what this is about, so I’m anxious to see more.”

Before their injuries, Newkirk and Kimble meshed well in the Hawks’ backcourt even though both are natural point guards. The year before that, they formed a potent platoon to help a team led by DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles to an A-10 title, an NCAA Tournament win and a near-upset of top-seeded Oregon in the second round of the Big Dance.

It’s fair to say, then, that both have plenty of experience — a point made clear when Kimble, a junior from Philly who fractured his foot last February, was selected as captain for the second straight year.

“It speaks volumes about his teammates,” Martelli said. “Obviously Fresh got the honor of being elected captain two years in a row, but it’s a players’ decision. To me, being a captain is really simple. The captain can walk up to you and tell you that your locker room is a mess, or that's not how we act on campus, or we don't travel in a certain way. The captain has to take care of how we are representing this program and this university, and the players decided for the second year in a row that Fresh Kimble would be the guy that they would listen to.”

Kimble may have an important role early in the season as Newkirk returns to full strength and Charlie Brown misses a little time after fracturing his wrist last month. 

Another Philly native, Brown burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game while sporting some big yellow hair. He’s since gotten a haircut but will look to have the same kind of impact as a sophomore.

“What I asked him to do was to look more like a basketball player, which he does,” Martelli said. “He has put in time in the weight room. I wanted him to be a more committed defender, and he has been. And now what we’re asking for him is health. And then the biggest thing for Charlie Brown is all of the noise. All of the noise must dissipate. He must be able to listen to one voice. Everyone wants to talk to him about being the next [to the NBA]. That's not how it works. He hasn't been told that 10 NBA teams have been through here this preseason. Ten. But they talked to me about what's it going to be down the line.

“He is a beautiful human being,” Martelli added. “He did something the other day that puts him on the top layer of the people I've ever coached. We had a scrimmage and the other team left 150 cups on the floor. One of the workers came out, and Charlie looked at the guy and asked if he was the one responsible to clean them up. The guy said that he was, and Charlie said, ‘Let me help you.’ There's no entitlement. That's a beautiful human being, and I only want the ultimate of successes for him.”

If Brown can return quickly, and the rest of the Hawks manage to stay healthy, will this St. Joe’s team look more like the A-10 champs from two years ago than the team with the losing record last year?

“Everyone’s gonna fit like puzzle pieces,” Demery predicted. “And we’re gonna try to accomplish something big.”

SAINT JOSEPH’S AT A GLANCE

Head coach
Phil Martelli, 23rd year

Last year
11-20, 4-15 Atlantic 10

Top returners
• Lamarr Kimble (junior guard) 
• Shavar Newkirk (senior guard) 
• James Demery (senior forward) 
• Charlie Brown (sophomore forward)

Key losses
None

Impact newcomers
• Taylor Funk (freshman forward) 
• Anthony Longpre (freshman forward)

Games to watch
• Nov. 18 vs. Princeton
• Dec. 2 vs. Villanova
• Jan. 6 vs. St. Bonaventure
• Jan. 27 at Penn
• Feb. 27 at Rhode Island 
• March 3 vs. La Salle

Best-case scenario
Everyone stays healthy, the freshmen emerge as key contributors off the bench, and the Hawks win the Atlantic 10 as well as an NCAA tourney game for the second time in three years.

Worst-case scenario
Injuries remain a problem, the Hawks aren’t able to overcome their rebounding woes, and they miss the postseason entirely.

St. Joe's can't quite pull off upset in Atlantic 10 semis

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St. Joe's can't quite pull off upset in Atlantic 10 semis

BOX SCORE 

WASHINGTON — Andre Berry scored 18 points, Fatts Russell made two crucial 3-pointers in the final six minutes and No. 25 Rhode Island rallied past Saint Joseph's 90-87 on Saturday in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinals.

The Rams (25-6) are the first No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 to reach the conference championship game since Saint Louis in 2013.

Jeff Dowtin added 16 points and 10 assists for Rhode Island, Russell scored 14 points and E.C. Matthews had 11 of his 14 points in the second half for the defending tournament champions.

Shavar Newkirk had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the fourth-seeded Hawks (16-16), who drubbed Rhode Island 78-48 last week. Saint Joseph's appeared poised to deliver another upset while trying to extend its season, building an 11-point lead early in the second half.

Cyril Langevine gave Rhode Island its first lead at 73-71 when he completed a 3-point play with 6:16 remaining. After Newkirk tied it with a basket on the next possession, Russell connected on a 3 to give the Rams the lead for good.

Russell had another 3 with 4:29 to go, and Jared Terrell added a 3 off an offensive rebound and kickout on the Rams' next possession to make it 82-75. The Hawks never cut the deficit to fewer than two and missed out on a chance to tie when Taylor Funk traveled near midcourt with 0.5 seconds left.

Big Picture
Rhode Island: After dropping three of their last five regular-season games, the Rams manufactured tight victories over VCU and Saint Joseph's to reach their second consecutive Atlantic 10 title game.

Saint Joseph's: The Hawks won seven of eight before Saturday's loss and started only one senior in the conference tournament. They're poised to contend in the Atlantic 10 again next season.

Up Next 
Rhode Island: The Rams will meet either second-seeded St. Bonaventure or third-seeded Davidson in Sunday's title game. Rhode Island managed a season split with both teams.

Saint Joseph's: The Hawks' season is likely finished.

St. Joe's steamrolls George Mason in A-10 tourney

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St. Joe's steamrolls George Mason in A-10 tourney

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON -- Nick Robinson led a balanced attack with 14 points, Taylor Funk had a double-double and fourth-seeded Saint Joseph's pulled away for a 68-49 win over fifth-seeded George Mason on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament.

Funk had 12 points and 10 rebounds, James Demery had 12 points off the bench and Shavar Newkirk added 13 points for the Hawks (16-15), who face top-seeded and 25th ranked Rhode Island in the semifinals.

Saint Joseph's worked a 26-25 halftime lead up to 16 points midway through the second half but the Patriots (16-17), who swept the regulation-season series by a total of five points, had a 9-0 run to get within single digits with five minutes to go. In the last four minutes the Hawks were 9 of 10 from the foul line, closing with a 16-6 run.

Jaire Grayer had 12 points and 13 rebounds for George Mason, which went 2 of 25 from distance and shot less than 30 percent overall.