St. Joseph's all set for a major turnaround season

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St. Joseph’s University head basketball coach Phil Martelli speaks with the media during St. Joseph’s University basketball media day Thursday, November 02, 2017 at Hagan Arena in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer)

When assessing a team’s prospects for a season, the first place to start is usually an evaluation of the previous season. Does not really help much with St. Joseph’s because the 2016-17 Hawks lost so many key players for so long because of injury — Chekko Oliva for the entire season, Shavar Newkirk for the conference season, James Demery at the start of the season, Lamarr Kimble at the end of the season.

It is because of the return of all those players, the emergence of rising sophomore Charlie Brown, some solid role players and two quality freshmen big men that a team that was 11-20 last season is projected by advanced analytics site kenpom.com to go 19-9 this season.

The biggest question is Newkirk, who is just nine months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee. Will he get back to the form he showed during the games when St. Joe’s was 7-5, when he routinely put 20 or more points and when he was basically impossible to keep out of the lane? If he does get back to that form, this has a chance to be a very good St. Joe’s team, perhaps the second best in the city, behind Villanova.

With so many missing parts, the Hawks offense last season was hard to watch and even harder for Phil Martelli to coach. Every possession was a struggle and St. Joe’s finished 215th in offensive efficiency. With everybody back, kenpom projects SJU to have the 39th most efficient offense, an incredible leap.

The reasons for optimism include all those injured players being healthy and a second season for Charlie Brown who, if he continues to improve, has NBA potential at some point. (As the only starter not injured last season, he joined the club recently when he fractured a bone in his left wrist. He had surgery, but is not expected to miss many games, if any.)

Demery is a really good college player. Oliva was good enough to start for the 2016 Atlantic 10 champions as a freshman. Kimble knows how to play and his toughness is maybe his best attribute.

Assuming Newkirk is ready when the season opens, Martelli will go with his two-point-guard lineup that includes Kimble. Oliva and Brown (if healthy) will start. Demery may be the sixth man, continuing a Martelli tradition of using one of his better players off the bench. Skilled, versatile freshman big man Anthony Longpré is a likely starter. The other freshman, Taylor Funk, with a game that goes to the three-point line, will get immediate run.  Add Chris Clover, who had a very nice finish to his sophomore season, and Nick Robinson into the mix and suddenly St. Joe’s looks deep, talented and experienced with the kind of lineup Martelli has used to great success in the past.

Martelli’s best teams have all had major stars, from Rashid Bey to Marvin O’Connor, Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, Pat Carroll, Langston Galloway and DeAndre’ Bembry. There is, at the least, star potential on this team, with the mantle sitting out there for somebody (Brown?) to grab.

A year after going 4-14 in the league, the Hawks are projected to go 13-5. They play Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and VCU, on paper the teams to beat in the league, four times, two at home, two on the road. They get three defending league champions at home — Princeton, Bucknell and Villanova. So, the opportunities are there for the team if it is good enough.

So is it good enough? The tipoff may be in how competitive they were during the 2016-17 A-10 season even when losing so many games. They lost six games by six points or fewer with that depleted lineup. They are in much better position to withstand injuries this season, but, if they are healthy, they have the talent to compete for the NCAA Tournament. And, if Brown takes the expected major leap forward, this has the chance to be a very dangerous team in March.