...It was about this time last year when a much more offensively talented Saint Joseph’s team, apparently on its way to an easy at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament after winning six straight, culminating with a rout of Villanova, hit the wall and promptly lost five of seven.
Those Hawks recovered with a win over No. 8 Xavier, another win over Xavier in the Atlantic 10 semifinals and earned one of the final at-large berths after a close loss to Temple in the A-10 championship game.
This St. Joe’s team was never going to earn an at-large bid after a non-conference schedule that saw them lose too often to teams they could have beaten and not beating any teams the odds makers thought they would not beat.
Still, just a week ago, the Hawks had only one A-10 loss. Now, they have four. A once solid first-round A-10 Tournament bye is now more tenuous. So, what gives?
Two things: reality and no bench production.
The Hawks needed three overtimes to beat Rhode Island and a tip-in at the OT buzzer to beat Duquesne. Even the wins were not easy. Now, they have lost three consecutive close games.
The reality is this is a flawed team and flawed teams don’t win every close game. That basketball truth has brought St. Joe’s back to A-10 reality.
Then, there is the bench. Or lack of it. And how all those starter minutes could be affecting the results.
Last year, with Garrett Williamson and Idris Hilliard coming off the bench, St. Joe’s bench took up just 18 percent of the available minutes, according to kenpom.com. That was 339th out of 341 teams. The national bench average was 30.8 percent of available minutes.
Now, with Williamson and Hilliard starting in place of Rob Ferguson and Pat Calathes, the Hawks bench, through Sunday, is getting just 14.9 percent of all minutes. That is 343rd out of 344 Div. I teams.
Star Ahmad Nivins has played 96.2 percent of available minutes. That is No. 2 in the nation behind UMBC’s Darryl Proctor.
No doubt, these players are in shape. Anybody who has watched them train at Summit knows that. Still, no matter the shape, the season is a grind. Players begin to wear down.
The Hawks were not exactly blown out in their three straight losses, losing by a combined nine points. But they played from behind in all those games and could never quite catch up. That is a hard way to play, especially with a short bench.
In Wednesday’s loss at Saint Louis, St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli did use his bench much more and got good production. After using the bench for just eight minutes against La Salle, Martelli got 16 points in 39 minutes from his bench against the Billikens.
Now, Martelli will insist that the bench situation is not a factor in the recent losses. And he could be right. He could also be wrong.