By Jon Rothstein
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In his heart, Phil Martelli is a prototypical Philadelphia sports fan.
Ask about the Phillies’ recent struggles and he’ll go on a monologue about the reasons for their demise.
Inquire about whether or not LeSean McCoy is the most underrated running back in the NFL and Martelli will instantly compare and contrast McCoy to former Eagles that preceded him at his position like Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, and maybe even Ricky Watters.
And most of all, if you want Martelli to go into detail about what plagued his St. Joseph’s team last season, he’ll immediately get to the point — missed opportunities.
“In 11 of our 14 losses last season, we led in the second half,” Martelli said recently of his Hawks team that advanced to the NIT before finishing the 2011-12 campaign with a record of 20-14. “We let some of those games get away because we simply didn’t make winning plays. We’ll be more experienced this season but if we think we’re going to be better simply because we’re older we’re really kidding ourselves.”
What the Hawks will be is talented.
Despite the Atlantic 10′s additions of Butler and VCU, St. Joseph’s looks like legitimately the second best team in the conference behind Saint Louis. Martelli returns his top eight scorers from a season ago and adds a versatile 6-8 forward in freshman Isaiah Miles.
Still, the backbone of this team will always be the makeup of its unique front court.
Halil Kanacevic, Ron Roberts, and C.J. Aiken are all completely different players — but they fit together seamlessly.
Kanacevic is the throwback who does whatever it takes to win and had 11 games last season with double figure rebounds. Roberts is the known commodity who scores with ease at the rim, and Aiken is a rarity in the Atlantic 10 because of his shot blocking ability at 6-9. In each of his first two seasons of college basketball, Aiken averaged 3.5 blocks per game.
Individually the trio would be effective. Together they have the chance to be dominant, especially since they’re all underclassmen.
“They each get their niche,” Martelli said in regards to Kanacevic, Roberts, and Aiken, who collectively averaged 30.1 points and 19.3 rebounds per game last season.
While the Hawks triumvirate anchors the interior, their back court is one of the more underrated tandems in the sport.
Tay Jones is a scorer playing out of position at point guard and is closing in on 2,000 points for his career. Jones’ running mate Langston Galloway emerged last season as a legitimate two way star, frequently defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer while scoring 15.5 points per game and grabbing an impressive 4.5 rebounds each time he took the floor.
“In a really good league, he’s one of the five, six, or seven best players,” Martelli said of Galloway.
Perhaps the biggest wild card for St. Joseph’s is sophomore point guard Chris Wilson. The southpaw is a crafty floor general who could allow Jones to get off the ball with more regularity if he’s ready to play major minutes for the majority of games.
“Players always make the biggest jump from their freshman to sophomore years,” Martelli said in reference to Wilson. “That’s what we’re hoping for with Chris.”
If Wilson can emerge and allow the Hawks to run three guard sets with him, Jones, and Galloway, this team will have six legitimate impact players. Throw in a versatile piece in Miles and a veteran wing in Daryus Quarles, whose yet to play the basketball people think he’s capable of, and St. Joseph’s has a legitimate chance to be the best squad Martelli’s has had since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West took the Hawks to within a possession of the Final Four in 2004.
But the road back to the NCAA Tournament will be a difficult one.
In addition to the rigorous Atlantic 10, the Hawks play non-conference games at Creighton, Drexel, and Villanova and also host Harvard and Iona. St. Joseph’s will also play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with BYU, Florida State, and Notre Dame.
The prognosis for Martelli and the Hawks is a good one, but there’s still plenty of questions that need to be answered before this team retakes its place as a perennial postseason contender.
“We’ve got a group that’s now experienced but there’s still questions,” Martelli said. “That’s the beauty of it. We get to go to practice every day and try to see if we can take some of these nice pieces and become a good team. The goal here is the same and that’s not going to change. The goal is the NCAA Tournament.”
Are the Hawks equipped for an NCAA Tournament birth?