Posted by: mdegeorge | January 29, 2011

When the losses go marching in…

I didn’t think I’d be writing about Saint Joseph’s basketball so soon after my time at The Hawk had ended. But the Hawks’ performance, or lack thereof, has been nagging at me of late, and with a rare Saturday afternoon off, the collegiality of the day just got to be too much. So here goes…

The line of thinking started two weeks ago when I happened to stumble upon TCN or whatever the channel calls itself these days broadcasting the classic Jesuit matchup of St. Louis and St. Joe’s.

Photo courtesy of sjuhawknews.com

 

Through most of the first half, I was having trouble identifying just who was on the floor. I’d only seen snippets of games earlier that season, and wasn’t sure who one player in particular was. He looked to be about 6-foot-5, holding onto the ball at the top of the key without dribbling, waiting for guys to run off downscreens in the low block.

After a couple possessions, I realized who it was: Idris Hilliard, the team’s senior captain. I seem to recall Hilliard as a 6-foot-9 freshman three years ago. But now, his game, and possibly he, has shrunk mightily.

I put the thought away as a mere snarky observation. But a pair of factors brought it back to mind today. The first was St. Joe’s loss to the far more athletic Temple Owls, which was sharing time on my television screen with Xavier and Richmond contesting an epic battle between two of the conference’s elite teams.

I saw Temple, then Xavier, then Richmond—all three of whom are likely Tournament teams this season—then St. Joe’s, and the difference was glaring. As I watched 6-foot-10 Justin Harper step out to the perimeter to knock down a silky-smooth three on offense, then jump into the lane to bang with 7-footer Kenny Frease, it struck me that they were playing a different game, a game played quite literally over the Hawks heads.

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue before, criticizing the Hawks’ physical conditioning for years and hearing even in passing from members of the team that they felt like high schoolers at times against larger opponents.

But, much like speed, you can’t teach height. The talent difference between St. Joe’s and Temple is there, but it’s not insurmountable. But the discrepancy in height and length can’t be compensated for. Carl Jones is fast and shifty and an excellent ball-handler. But when he’s asked to drive to the basket against a rangy defender like Khalif Wyatt at 6-foot-4, it’s not going to end well for the Hawks most trips down the court.

The Hawks redefine short at times. For St. Joe’s, short is the 5-foot-11 (a generous measurement at that) figure cut by Charoy Bentley and Justin Crosgile, who probably not coincidentally combined for one minute against the Owls. Short for the Owls is T.J. DiLeo, even if the 6-foot-2 in the media guide embellishes the truth a bit.

The Owls game led me on a thought exercise the likes of which probably filled the days for German existentialists (albeit with different ends, I would hope).

So, it’s not entirely the talent issue for St. Joe’s. Part of it certainly is that they’re young. So then, is it the system in place that’s failing them?

This isn’t going to turn into a “Fire Phil Martelli” diatribe. He’s been at the helm at St. Joe’s for long enough to know that something drastic needs to change. He also know that the window he has in which he can change it is probably down to about 14 months at this point.

But the notion that the system of offense the Hawks play, which after five years of attending practices and games isn’t driven by a clear ideology that I can discern, is putting them at a disadvantage is worth exploring.

I’ve been a firm believer since Ahmad Nivins left school and left the Hawks with a smaller, more agile lineup at the beginning of last season that an up-tempo style is the way to go. Nivins was the anchor of a halfcourt system that even as a senior was less than efficient for long stretches. The absence of a scorer who could deliver quality possessions on a regular basis has been felt, as the Hawks’ 8-25 record over the last 367 days attests.

The Hawks now have a quick lineup. Langston Galloway and Patrick Swilling are good in the open court, as are big men C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts, who can create matchup problems for their bigger counterparts. The halfcourt offense, with the lack of good three-point shooters (more on that in a minute), physically has limited room to operate because of the superior length of any team they’ll play against and their own relative inability to create space for themselves.

So then, what system is Martelli and company using? The answer, unsurprisingly, is one that worked in the past when stars like Pat Carroll and Jameer Nelson roamed Hawk Hill.

Then the obvious question becomes: What’s different? I’m not going to insult the basketball gods by insinuating that Nelson and Jones are of the same ability-level.

But there are two extremely evident factors that this team lacks that Martelli’s past successful teams had.

The first is height, which started us on this adventure. But to better illustrate that point, let’s recall the last St. Joe’s team to make the Big Dance. They started three players 6-foot-9 or taller. This team has one in the regular rotation at that height, and that’s Aiken, who I weigh more than.

The second, and I hate to be crass about it, is a big tall white guy who can hit threes. Pat Caroll, Chet Stachitas, and Pat Calathes spanned an almost uninterrupted decade of three-point shooting virtuosity that mimicked one of the most successful periods in the program’s history. Coincidence?

To further that point, just look at the shooting numbers the Hawks have put up as a team. In the perfect regular season of 2003-04, they shot 40.4 percent from three as a team, including five players shooting 39 percent or better (and Jameer was fifth best among that group of shooters). The next highest number since then: 38.6 in 2007-08, when they made the Tournament, led by Calathes and Rob Ferguson beyond the arc.

The last two seasons, you ask? A putrid 30 percent even last year, with no one topping 34.5 percent, and 30.9 this season.

There’s a third factor, though it’s much less evident and almost unable to prove, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. Timidity is legislated in the Martelli’s offensive sets. Darrin Govens, as a senior, would regularly get pulled for deviating from the offensive plan (sometimes deservedly so). Ditto for Garret Williamson, to whom the keys to the offensive Ford Gremlin were almost unilaterally turned over last season.

Such an adherence to such a faulty system stifles creativity (you know, like the improvisation inherent in the run-and-gun system so ardently opposed). When you have 18 and 19-year-old kids running plays because they’re told to rather than because it jives with the basketball instincts they rode to college, it’s hardly surprising the halfcourt sets break down two screens in.

It produces a lethal combination of circular futility. Martelli is known for being a good recruiter, mining potential from occasionally unlikely sources and coaching them up. But by putting talent into the wrong system, they’re not improving.

Name the last St. Joe’s player other than Nivins to leave Hawk Hill notably better than he arrived. There is none. Williamson doesn’t count, since no player who entered drawing comparisons to Kobe Bryant and leaves into the D-League qualifies. And we know that no one from the 2011 class (Hilliard and Bentley) or the expatriate, now non-existent class of 2012. That’s a five-year gap, at least, without a player to hang your hat on.

The wrong system can make the right players look bad. This brings the obvious question of tailoring a system to the players at hand or changing the players brought in. For a while, Martelli has been inefficient in both cases.

But since those letters of intent are quite binding for four years, I think it’s time for the staff to start utilizing the full talents of the players present. Those sets that used to set up entry passes to the physically-imposing Nivins won’t work with the spindly Aiken. The clearouts that used to leave open three on the wing for Calathes aren’t going to yield the same results when Swilling’s out there.

There’s hope for the future. There’s potential to be harnessed. But things need to change, and change fast.

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