It was only eight months ago that Saint Joseph’s powered its way to an Atlantic 10 championship and squeaked by Cincinnati in a memorable NCAA Tournament first-round game.
It might as well have been eight years ago.
Gone are DeAndre Bembry, Isaiah Miles, and Aaron Brown — the Hawks’ three leading scorers from last year. Now, the team belongs to lone returning starter Shavar Newkirk, and reserves from last year Lamarr Kimble and James Demery.
Throw in three-star recruit Charlie Brown, and the Hawks are, more or less, a new team in 2016-17.
When talent meets new roles and inexperience, one can expect some hiccups, and the Hawks’ 77-76 victory over Toledo on Saturday had plenty of them.
Mainly: Saint Joseph’s just couldn’t buy a stop when it needed to. The result was a back-and-forth second half, with neither team having a two-position lead until the final minute. There was also some iffy shot selection and a few unforced turnovers, but overall it is tough to have expected more from a new-look team’s first regular season game.
Head coach Phil Martelli said that the first game was a solid start for his team, though he also indicated there were plenty of areas for improvement.
Newkirk and Kimble were sensational, combining for 44 points and half the team’s shot attempts, but Brown struggled in his first collegiate game, shooting 1-6 from the field and scoring five points in 30 minutes. Demery was able to score 11, but struggled with his shot.
At halftime, Martelli had to remind him to stay within himself.
“I said ‘drive the ball to the basket,’” Martelli said. “’You don’t have to show anybody you’re a jump shooter.’”
The game started on an emotional high note, as the team unveiled its 2016 Atlantic 10 championship banner and brought the trophy out for the sellout crowd of 4,200 to see.
But while the players were reminded of last year’s squad, this team bears little resemblance to the one that cut down the nets in Brooklyn last March. With Bembry and Miles gone, the Hawks’ identity will be “small and quick,” with all the flash you’d expect from the New York City guard Newkirk.
“The game is for the quick. It’s not for the fast,” Martelli said. “Since August I knew that was the way we were going to play.”
Now, with the captain Newkirk leading the way, the focus turns from remembering one championship to working toward another, with a bit of a different style.
“Last year we played a five-out game because we had bigs that could shoot the ball,” Kimble said. “This year we’re more pick and roll. It’s different, but we’re finding our weaknesses with the team we got this year and turning them into strengths.”
The expectations aren’t high for the Hawks, mainly because the team lost the bulk of its scoring and rebounding from last year. For Saint Joseph’s to surprise in what could be a top-heavy Atlantic 10, Newkirk will need more nights like he had on Saturday. The junior had a career-high 28 points on 9-16 shooting, to go with seven rebounds. The same is true for Kimble, who had a career-high 16 of his own.
As for bench production, little-known freshman Nick Robinson had seven points, but that was about it. Martelli will need to find someone beyond his starting five who can inject some offense, or he will risk his team getting worn down when conference play starts.
The competition is going to step up for Saint Joseph’s soon. Ivy League sleeper Columbia visits Hagan Arena on Monday, then the team heads to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam and a field that includes NC State, Creighton, and Ole Miss.
“College is about waiting your turn,” Newkirk said. “We waited our turn and we’re ready for it.”