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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.