St. Joe's shooting for a return to the Big Dance

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St. Joe's DeAndre' Bembry drives around Rhode Island's Jared Terrell.

A year ago as a young team looking for an offensive identity, St. Joseph's struggled one season after earning an NCAA tournament bid.

Hit hard by graduation, the Hawks went 13-18 and had trouble scoring, averaging 61.7 points.

The Hawks lost just one starter from last season, point guard Chris Wilson. But, armed with virtually the same cast, the results have been strikingly different.

St. Joseph's has already surpassed last season's win total. The Hawks take a 14-3 record into Wednesday's second game of a Palestra doubleheader against Penn.

While some newcomers have contributed, it is mainly the same players from last season who have been the contributors to a Hawks team that is 4-1 in the Atlantic Ten Conference and has designs of returning to the NCAAs.

"One big difference is that Zeke is having a heck of a year," said all-conference forward DeAndre' Bembry, referring to teammate Isaiah Miles, a 6-foot-7 senior who is a candidate for most improved A-10 player.

Last season, Miles averaged 10.7 points. This season, he is averaging a team-high 17.8 points and shooting a scorching 53.1 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from beyond the arc, and 90.4 percent from the foul line.

The 216-pound Miles says he feels quicker, having lost 20 pounds. But he also gained a different mind-set.

"Last year, I was known as a set jump shooter, and I would sit in the corner and wait for a drive and kick and then shoot," Miles said. "This year, I am attacking and staying aggressive."

That aggressiveness is shown by the frequency with which he is getting to the foul line. Last season in 31 games, he attempted 67 free throws. This season, Miles already has 73 attempts.

Bembry is scoring slightly less but doing more for the team. Last season, he averaged 17.7 points. This season, he is averaging 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists.

He is a staunch defender and indefatigable performer, averaging 37.4 minutes per game. More than the statistics is the leadership that Bembry has displayed.

"He is a fascinating teammate," coach Phil Martelli said. "The feedback I get even at the next level is they are amazed at how hard he practices, and so everybody follows that."

The return of 6-8 senior Papa Ndao, who sat out last season due to medical reasons, has given the team a major lift.

Ndao also missed the first six games this season with a fractured finger. He's averaging 5.4 points but gives the Hawks a perimeter threat, shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the arc.

"He's a great shooter who can spread the floor," Bembry said. "Our bigs are our best shooters."

Senior guard Aaron Brown, who mainly came off the bench last season, has been a key starter, while 6-6 sophomore James Demery, who started 29 games a year ago, has been better suited coming off the bench. Brown is averaging 9.6 points and Demery 9.5.

Sophomore point guard Shavar Newkirk has averaged 7.8 points and 2.8 assists.

Pierfrancesco Oliva, a 6-8 freshman from Taranto, Italy, who attended New Jersey's Bergen Catholic High School, started the first 15 games but has been out with an ankle injury. Classmate Lamarr Kimble, the point guard from Neumann-Goretti High, is averaging 4.1 points and scored a career-high 11 in a 66-65 overtime win over Temple.

Martelli emphasizes how important the team chemistry has been.

"In August, I knew we had a good team with the way everybody worked together. But whether we were good in basketball remained to be seen."

Now it is being seen, and the Hawks see no reason why they shouldn't make a run at the NCAA tournament.

"We have the confidence and talent and pieces for it," Bembry said. "We play together, and all you need is some momentum and any kind of run is possible."

mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard

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