St. Joseph's on roll, thanks to defense

When offseason lineup discussions were held on Hawk Hill, St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli reached the conclusion that deciding factors should be based on offensive possibilities, since last season the Hawks simply didn't have enough of them.

After Martelli fit the puzzle pieces together, a funny thing happened on the way to 21-4 going into Wednesday's Atlantic Ten showdown with Dayton at Hagan Arena.

The Hawks got a whole lot better on defense, too.

There's no getting past how St. Joe's has scored over 14 points more a game this season. However, the Hawks also top the A-10 in both field-goal percentage defense and three-point field-goal percentage defense, while at the same time they are second nationally in fewest fouls committed, which means opponents are not scoring additional points at the foul line.

Does it feel like a better defense than last season?

"Way better," said James Demery, a defensive ace who usually gets starters' minutes off the bench. "Less mistakes. We learned from what we did. . . . We communicate better. As long as we communicate, knowing where we're supposed to be, knowing the defensive plan, we're good."

Senior Aaron Brown, who earned a starting job more based on his offense as the tiebreaker, said last season the Hawks "struggled a whole lot containing the ball. . . . We really wanted to stop people better. It was all-in or nothing for us."

Choosing the lineups he has, with a starting group that basically has a couple of forwards, a couple of wings and a point guard, Martelli said, "Now, obviously you had to hold your breath and say with this sized lineup, are we going to get crushed in the lane? I took that personally - saying we're to have to come up with a plan, to work on and emphasize our post defense."

He added that improving the defense along the three-point line was a point of emphasis. In winning 13 games, the Hawks were 10th in the league last season in that category.

As a group, Martelli said, the Hawks don't talk much about where they're ranked defensively. But he added, "It's comforting to know we're not going to get run out of a building because of our defensive performance."

Asked about not fouling, Martelli pointed out that St. Joe's is not a pressure-based defense.

"If somebody wanted to look at a negative on our defense, they'd say, 'Well, you don't turn anybody over,' " Martelli said. "Yeah, I'd counter by saying, 'But we don't foul.' You can't be both. You can't be turning people over and not fouling. I prefer not to foul. That's certainly significant, as much as the three-point defense and the overall percentage defense."

Talking about unsung heroes, Martelli brought up Demery being terrific off the bench, the whole interior defense being better, and Papa Ndao returning after sitting out last season.

This season, it's hard to even call St. Joe's players by position names. DeAndre' Bembry has the ball in his hands a lot and might be guarding anybody on the court. The junior also averages 6.4 defensive rebounds a game, 46th in the country. That puts the 6-foot-6 Bembry fourth nationally among players 6-6 or under.

"I think the other piece of it . . . DeAndre' is very insistent that his teammates play defense," Martelli said.

Brown said they all take pride on opponents not driving the lane.

"We're all zoned in," Brown said. "We try to predicate it on helping one another. If one man is rotating, the next man is rotating - it's like a collective effort."

Another simple factor: With success, every possession matters more. The collective effort has meaning. That's been obvious from the start this season on Hawk Hill.