As an example of how precarious the direction of a college basketball program can be, imagine yourself as a St. Joe's fan last season. Just five years removed from an Elite Eight appearance, the Hawks were relegated to relying upon a 6'8" power-forward who was held in check by Kurt Huelsman.
SJU's '08-'09 team was essentially a study on erratic behavior. The Hawks won seven of their first eight conference games, giving every indication that they would be one of the teams to beat in the Atlantic 10. However, losing six of their last eight all but sealed their fate as a pretender.
For as good as a player Ahmad Nivins was, he was unable to consistently provide the Hawks with enough scoring to keep them in games down the stretch. Tasheed Carr was an effective second option, he carried the team during the last month of the season, yet the Hawks were probably one additional scoring option away from a twenty win season.
This year marks an important step in the St. Joseph's program. Phil Martelli and Co. will be hosting visitors in the newly renovated Hagan Arena, formerly the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. Notwithstanding that development, SJU will be fielding a team looking for an identity.
The Hawks, who finished 10th in the league in scoring, will likely struggle to score points yet again.
I interviewed Chad Adlehardt, of Hawk Hoop Club fame, to gain a clearer perspective on what kind of shit-storm UD fans can expect when the Flyers visit Hagan Arena later this year. We discussed how severe Ahmad Nivins' departure will effect the team, the ins and outs of their new digs, if St. Joe's fans will be forced to assassinate Phil Martelli at some point, and whether or not the Hawks can ever reach the heights of the 2003-04 team.
TB: Last year was a down year for Phil Martelli's program. The Hawks ended the 2008-09 season with a disappointing 17-15 record, ending up tied for fifth in the conference. What held last year's team back?
CA: Last year the Hawks lacked a true second and third scorer. With the departures of Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson (44% of the '07-08 team points), too much of the offensive load was forced upon on A10 POY Ahmad Nivins. He certainly delivered, but no other players were able to consistently help with the scoring.
Some say it was a lack of a true point guard, with 5th-year Senior Tasheed Carr being more of a scorer than being known to have a great handle or make good decisions with the ball. Two players who some thought would the step up and help carry the burden, juniors Garrett Williamson and Darrin Govens, either feared taking big shots or struggled to make shots consistently.
Defenses began collapsing on Nivins, and with very few (if any) playmakers on the team, a stagnant offense was born. Also, a lack of depth might have played into the Hawks' demise at the end of the season. Going only 6 or 7 players deep in the rotation seemed like it really took a toll on the team.
TB: Replacing Atlantic-10 player of the year Ahmad Nivins is going to be next to impossible. Nivins led the conference in double-doubles (22), rebounding (11.8 rpg), and field goal percentage (61.2%). So, who gets the unenviable task of filling his shoes this year?
CA: I think it's pretty safe to say that it will take more than one player to collectively fill Nivins' large shoes. Sophomore Todd O'Brien, a Bucknell transfer, will be asked to start at Nivins' spot, but expectations for him are to be a steady defender and rebounder. To help replace the scoring that Nivins' provided, senior shooting guard Darrin Govens will have another opportunity to be a big part of the offense.
However, Phil Martelli has openly questioned Govens' commitment to working hard to become a better basketball player, which makes me skeptical on him having a breakout season.
Junior power-forward Idris Hilliard is another player who will probably be asked to score more, but most of his points will probably come from rebounds as he will have the responsibility of grabbing some of Nivins' 12 rebounds per game.
Sophomore shooting-guard Chris Prescott, who had a relatively quiet freshman season, might have the best skillset to be this season's breakout player while coming off the bench. Power-forward Bryant Irwin has also worked hard this offseason and has to contribute for the Hawks to be successful.
TB: The Hawks return three starters from last year's squad. Senior guards Darrin Govens (12.5 ppg) and Garrett Williamson (6.1 ppg) return to pace the backcourt, and forward Idris Hilliard (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) looks to build upon his impressive sophomore season. We just discussed replacing Nivins, so who fills the void left by the departure of Tasheed Carr?
CA: If last year's team was predictable and plodding, this year's team looks to be sporadic and frenetic. And that is because it will likely have two very quick freshmen point guards earning most of Tasheed Carr's minutes: Justin Crosgile (DePaul Catholic HS, NJ) and Carl "Tay" Jones (Garfield Heights HS, OH).
Both are 6 feet tall or under. Crosgile is physically the stronger of the two, but both can score and create shots for their teammates and had great success in highschool. It is being reported that Crosgile has injured his hand and will likely miss some time (6-8 weeks), which leaves Tay Jones with a big opportunity to earn the starting PG spot.
He certainly can score the ball, but will Jones and his somewhat diminutive frame be able to defend the bigger guards he will be faced against, along with running an offense that needs to find an identity?
Phil Martelli has also stated that Darrin Govens will likely see some time at the point guard slot this season, the position he was recruited to play but never really showed the court vision and ball handling skills to excel at this level.
TB: Let's talk about this year's incoming freshman. Who will contribute right away?
CA: In addition to the two incoming point guards (Crosgile and Jones), the other incoming freshman this season is 6'8"/240lbs power-forward Carl Baptiste (North Hunterdon HS, NJ). When he was signed, it came out of nowhere to many Hawks fans, as his recruitment was under the radar and so was his name.
He has apparently impressed many at summer camps, and works very hard in the weight room.
Although a bigger body, Baptiste is pretty athletic and can shoot the ball from deep. He will likely be asked upon to play backup minutes at the PF and C positions this year. Immediate impact? Unlikely. Contributing? Likely.
TB: You are probably dying to talk about Hagan Arena, the end result of the renovation and expansion of the old Fieldhouse. During last year's conference predictions, I described the atmosphere as "like the student body itself: loud, obnoxious and full of sweaty Italians."
Needless to say, playing in the Palestra last season probably took away some of the home-court advantage the Hawks routinely enjoyed while playing on campus. So go ahead, tell me a little bit about Hagan Arena. I assume that Phil Martelli will no longer need to duck to get into his office?
CA: The Palestra is a great place to watch basketball games, but Hawks fans couldn't be more excited about returning to an on-campus home court (not that Dayton ever plays out here anyway--well, finally this season!). I haven't seen the new arena firsthand yet, but here is a response from a Hawks fan who has:
"You are right, Phil will no longer need to duck to get into his office. As a matter of fact, neither will any of the recruits Phil meets with. Additionally, Martelli has his own office now. He no longer shares space with his assistants.
"One of the many upgrades on Hawk Hill is the Ramsay Basketball Center, named for Hall of Fame and legendary Saint Joseph's coach Dr. Jack Ramsay, who started his long lineage of famous coaches and garnering the nickname for SJU as the cradle of coaches: (Jack Ramsay '49, Jum Lynam '63, Matt Guokas '67, Paul Westhead '61, Jack McKinney '57, George Senesky '43, and Jim O'Brien '74--all have coached in the NBA.)
The new 20,000 square foot Ramsay Center houses the SJU men's and women's basketball programs as well as the Athletic Communications Office and the Thomas J. Wynne Hall of Fame room. New locker rooms, player's lounges, study spaces and video capabilities are a dramatic upgrade over the former Fieldhouse facilities.
"This will be the first thing the visiting Dayton Flyers will notice. Hagan Arena, or more formerly the Michael J. Hagan Arena, will have the same old school feel of the Fieldhouse, but will be brand-spanking new, including new lighting, new seats (and more of them), new concessions, and a wrap-around concourse, to name but a few of the improvements.
"When viewed from the floor, the new two-tiered student section is right on top of the players. For the visiting Flyers, the atmosphere they will experience will include loud, boisterous, Hawk supporting Irish, Germans, Poles and Italians. All Hawk students come with or without sweat.
"The 2009-10 season will see Saint Joseph's celebrating the 100th year of Hawk basketball and new, old-school arena. It will be a new era, with the same Hawk passion. It will quite the experience."