Hawks' expectations soar following tough 2016-17 season

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Point guard Shavar Newkirk, participates in basketball practice at St. Joe’s University, Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. After a great season Newkirk tore his ACL on the last play of the first half of the first A-10 game. He is not running yet, but is getting close and is expected to be full strength when the season begins in November. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer )

After St. Joseph’s closed the books last March on an 11-win season that saw injuries run through the team like a virus, coach Phil Martelli took a deep breath and said, “Older and experienced is not better. Better is better.”

His players obviously heard him. The Hawks trekked to Hagan Arena throughout the summer and tirelessly worked on their games, so that as Martelli went through preseason practice, he declared that his team had improved “across the board, and that’s 1 through 13.”

“I don’t think too many guys left this summer to even go home,” team captain Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble said. “Everybody put their heart and their effort into this summer, knowing that last year we went off the way we really didn’t want to go off. So this year, coming in with a new identity, everybody is back making a different run this year.

“The older guys didn’t have to influence or push the younger guys to work on their games to get better. Everybody wanted to get better on their own.”

Kimble, a junior guard, was one of the injured last year, suffering a broken bone in his left foot in February and missing the last seven games. He had taken over at the point for Shavar Newkirk, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in December and was sidelined for the season after having played only 12 games and having scored 20 or more points in eight of them.

Forward Pierfrancesco Oliva never played last season after undergoing knee surgery. Forward James Demery, who finished as the Hawks’ No. 3 scorer, sat out 10 games with a stress fracture in his left foot.

So the bottom line for St. Joseph’s read 11-20. The Hawks struggled on offense, finishing 12th or worse in the 14-team Atlantic 10 in scoring and the three shooting categories — field-goal, three-point and free-throw percentages. Kimble thinks that will change for the better for two reasons.

“One, because everybody worked on their games in the summer to get better,” he said. “Everybody’s jump shot has gotten better, everybody’s stronger, more fit. Two, our chemistry after taking a year of losing and coming back this year, is definitely way different. We know where everybody’s strengths and weaknesses are on the court.

The injured players have returned to the practice court, and that includes Newkirk, a 6-foot senior who averaged 20.3 points in a little more than one-third of the season. He was cleared to return to practice on a limited basis and participated in his first five-on-five workout last Tuesday.

“It put a smile on my face, the first day I got to get out there,” Newkirk said. “My coordination was a little off, but I’m going to get to it. But it felt good. I just can’t wait to practice with them again and again and again.”

Martelli doesn’t know whether Newkirk will return to the form he showed last year but he was part-happy, part-relieved following his first day of practice.

“One of the beautiful things Tuesday was, he fell down,” the coach said. “He hit the floor and everybody in the gym sucked the air in. Then he got up and everybody breathed, and I said, ‘Great, we’re on, now I can bark at you about not going to the right position or the right angle or whatever it would be.’ ”

Of the 10 players who averaged more than 10 minutes last season, eight are back, including double-figure scorers Newkirk, Kimble (15.5), Demery (14.5) and sophomore forward Charlie Brown (12.5), who fractured a bone in his left wrist in the preseason and underwent surgery on Oct. 24. Brown’s status for the opener is uncertain.

Adding to the mix is Oliva, a 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore who, according to Martelli, has a high basketball IQ, is a terrific passer, and “will give me feedback,” and freshmen Taylor Funk and Anthony Longpré, who are talented shooters and will see their share of playing time.

If there are areas that Martelli wants his team to improve upon before the start of the season, it’s free-throw shooting and cutting down on turnovers. He said he wants his team to have a “gang mentality” under the boards and have its taller wings — Demery, Brown and Nick Robinson — in on the action.

While all the Hawks have gotten better, they all can’t start or play major minutes. Martelli will meet with each of his players a few days before the season to inform them about their roles. He knows “it’s inevitable that feelings will get hurt.”

Still, it’s a new season. St. Joseph’s was picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10 in the preseason voting, while Newkirk (second team), Kimble (third team) and Brown (third team) were named all-conference. Martelli hopes the work and the spirit his players exhibited in offseason workouts will lead to more wins and a chance to contend in the league.