St. Joe’s and Drexel got their season underway this past Friday at Hagan Arena in Philadelphia, PA.
Freshman Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva started the game for the Hawks, which was a surprise for many because Martelli has not been known to start freshman in the past. Furthermore, grad student Papa Ndao did not dress for the game due to a finger injury, which will sideline him for about two weeks.
Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint also made an intriguing change to his starting lineup, when fifth- year senior guard Tavon Allen was not named in the starting five for the Dragons. It was later reported that Allen did not start due to fatigue from preseason play.
This gave freshman Terrell Allen the opportunity to be the primary ball handler for Flint’s team and he took full advantage of it. Allen’s ability to dribble the ball from basket to basket at top speed is incredible and should mix well with Tavon Allen, when he returns to the starting lineup.
Terrell Allen, just like Checco, started in his collegiate debut and played all but four minutes for the Dragons. This shows Flint’s confidence in the young guard and who could blame him. Allen scored 18 points, dished out 4 assists, collected 4 steals, grabbed 2 offensive rebounds, and only turned over the ball once. What a first regular season college basketball game.
This is not say that Checco did not have a good performance of his own. He not only scored 12 points for the Hawks but recorded 4 assists, 3 blocks, and 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. Not to mention the clutch three pointer he hit with less than three minutes remaining in the second half to extend St. Joseph’s lead to 12. Cheeco had an all around game and confirmed Martelli’s decision to start him.
The Hawks started fast out the gates to take a commanding lead for the first 10 minutes of the game but Drexel began to make a comeback towards the end of the first half when coach Martelli began to rotate his lineup.
The comeback was partly due to the early foul trouble of senior guard Aaron Brown and the needed rest for standout forward DeAndre Bembry. In total, Martelli used an uncommon 12 players in the first half of the game.
It is early in the season so Martelli may be experimenting with certain player combinations but it is very unlikely that this trend will continue. Look for Martelli to tighten his rotation as the season progress.
Additionally, the referees blew their whistles more often than not during this contest, which led to coach Flint receiving a technical foul and both teams shooting a combined 43 free throws in the first half. This is bound to happen early on in the season as teams are still getting back to game form.
The constant foul calling led to 11 of Bembry’s 23 points coming from the foul line. This trend would continue as both teams combined for 67 total free throws.
After two ill-advised decisions by sophomore guard Shavar Newkirk at the beginning of the second half, Martelli called on freshman Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble to take his place. Kimble, who just like Terrell Allen and Checco, made his debut and stabilized the backcourt for the Hawks during his time on the floor.
Kimble did not fill the stat sheet like his two freshman counterparts did but gave Martelli 17 solid minutes off the bench. Newkirk and Kimble will continue to split time at point guard for the Hawks but don’t be surprised if Kimble is starting sooner rather than later, especially if Newkirk continues his inconsistency to make the right decision.
Although Tavon Allen did not start the second half on the court, he made up for it, scoring 16 of his 20 points off the bench in the second period and had 2 assists to go along with it. If Tavon Allen was fatigued from the preseason he did not show it, going 3-of-6 from the three point line and 5-for-5 from the charity stripe.
The Dragons also received a quality performance from Philly native Rashann London, who scored 11 points, in addition to 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 30 minutes. Now that Damion Lee is gone, Drexel will have to replace his production and London showed that he has the ability to take up some of the slack with the help of Tavon and Terrell Allen, among others.
The Hawks never really put this game away however, letting Drexel hang around until the end. Lackluster free throw shooting and rebounding from the Hawks kept Drexel in the game but with veteran leadership from Brown, who finished the game with 15 points, senior Isaiah Miles, who tallied a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Bembry, the Hawks were able to sneak out of Hagan Arena with a win.
Martelli and his team must continue to work on rebounding on both ends of the floor and foul shooting if they want to finish the season in the top half of the A-10 conference standings. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long heart wrenching season.
Flint will make sure that Drexel’s defense is sound but will have to continue to find players that will replace the offensive production left by Damion Lee. Guards Tavon Allen, Terrell Allen, and Rashann London are potential candidates and they showed why Friday night. However, the real question is, can they get more offensive production from their big men? The Drexel faithful will just have to wait and see.
One thing is for sure though. St. Joe’s and Drexel still have a lot of work to do but both teams have freshman who can play with the best of them and have bright futures ahead.
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
A four time All-Star in high school. A captain for all four seasons. An average of 19 points per game and 6 assists.
These are just a number of the accomplishments of newly named Saint Joseph’s walk-on, Christian Vega. Even though the sophomore will only suit up for home games, he has been a common commodity at practices for the past two seasons.
Vega, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was on the practice squad last year, but earned himself a spot this go around. His fiery and energetic play has helped push the other Saint Joseph’s guards in practice.
“On the court and in practices I will work hard,” he told the Empire. “I like to play very intelligent basketball...I compete and try to make the team better.”
Born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, basketball was also an important part of his life. Since the age of six, he has played and has been quite successful. But his first sport wasn’t basketball: it was baseball, just like everyone else in Puerto Rico. Sports, however, have always been in his blood.
“One of my sisters is living in California, she is finishing high school and she is trying out for the US national team for synchronized swimming,” he added. “My dad [also] participated in two Pan American Games [playing] water polo for Puerto Rico.”
Christian has taken a different route. Instead of in the pool, he likes to be above water, on the basketball court. After joining the basketball club at his baseball program, he was hooked and later dropped baseball. But this came slightly unexpected as no one in his family had played the game of basketball seriously.
However, it wasn’t long before he caught on and began to fall in love with the game of basketball, under the guidance of the Bucaplaa Basketball Club. In high school, he noticed his real potential.
“I would say when I was in ninth grade when my high school coach put me on some of the varsity games because he needed a point guard...I decided if I keep working hard I can get to NCAA or go to college.”
Not only was Christian working hard in basketball (often he would have two basketball practices a night), but he was also in school. Ranked as one of the best academic schools in all of Puerto Rico, Colegio San Jose' challenged Christian, but he never broke down.
“I have always had good grades. My high school GPA was 3.71.”
And oddly enough, he credits the extensive amount of basketball to aiding in his high grade point average.
“To be honest, when I had a lot of practices and stuff being involved with basketball, I would say I did better in school. When I had free time and nothing to do with basketball, I was laid back and didn’t put [the work in initially]...But when I had practice I would be like, ‘I have to study now’.”
In high school, not only did Christian thrive in basketball and in the classroom, but he was a varsity volleyball player, which was something he didn’t pick up until closer to his high school days.
“I was pretty good [at volleyball],” reminisced Christian. “I was not the best one on the team, but I played every game. We ranked like fourth in the country of Puerto Rico.”
In addition to his success in high schools athletics, the 6-foot-0 guard starred on one of the best basketball clubs in Puerto Rico. The Bucaplaa Basketball Club was “the number one team” in the country, according to Christian. Despite his individual success with high school and strong play with one of the most successful clubs in the country, he garnered no scholarship offers from American colleges. He credits this to the lack of exposure to college coaches in Puerto Rico.
Christian soon traveled to the US, still in hopes of joining a college basketball program. He enrolled at Saint Joseph’s University as a student and the reasons why he decided to attend the school weren’t exactly related to basketball.
“I like small schools like this, where I can be known by everyone,” says Christian. “I’m not a number, I’m a person. I loved this program since a kid. I’ve been following it, it's a big program. [Also] it’s close to the city, but at the same time it's not in the city.”
Although he was apart of the practice squad his freshman year, he wasn’t able to suit up for games.
But now he is fulfilling his dream and playing college basketball. It’s been a long, but successful road. Christian hopes he can continue to improve and possibly earn some minutes. The lefty says in order to warrant a spot in the rotation, he needs to get stronger and better defensively. After Saint Joseph’s, he hopes to continue playing basketball.
“If I can go pro back in my country. That would be great.”
Regardless, Christian has already exceeded expectations. He has earned himself a spot on a nationally recognized basketball program. He has lived in two different cultures. He has been a crazy successful high school athlete. Furthermore, on top of all of that, he has maintained a strong academic base.
And who knows? Christian Vega just may continue to surprise us.
St. Joe's is returning from a 13-18 season and everything revolves around junior captain DeAndre Bembry. Finally receiving national recognition, Bembry was ranked the 22nd best player in all of college basketball recently by CBS Sports, in addition to other rankings. He is expected to be selected in next year's NBA draft so this is likely the last year Saint Joseph's will have to capitalize on having a superstar swingman. Bembry led the team with 38.6 minutes per game and that does not look to change as Phil Martelli has become well known for giving his stars loads of minutes. Martelli has worked for twenty years as a head coach in college basketball, all with Saint Joseph’s. With six tournament appearances and 375 career wins, coach Martelli is one of the most successful coaches in Philadelphia college basketball history.
vs. Drexel, November 13th, 2015
After a down year, the Hawks look to redeem themselves in the 2015-16 season. Beginning the year with a win, against a fellow City 6 team, would be a huge confidence booster. On the other hand, a loss against a less talented team would not be a good start. St. Joe’s needs to get ahead of steam before conference play and they need to capitalize off this opportunity at home.
vs. Villanova, December 1st, 2015
Saint Joseph’s has a chance to be a special team, but not if they can’t beat the best in the nation. Here is their chance: a nationally ranked powerhouse in their home gym. A win would be monumental. A loss wouldn't kill them, but it would be nice.
at Richmond, January 2nd, 2016
The team needs to start off conference play on the right note. A win on the road against a solid, middle of the pack Richmond team would be a good start.
Projected Starting Lineup and Stats
PG Shavar Newkirk (8 PPG, 3 APG)
SG Aaron Brown (9 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
SF DeAndre Bembry (15 PPG, 8 RPG)
PF Isaiah Miles (11 PPG, 5 RPG)
C Javon Baumann (4 PPG, 5 RPG)
6th: Papa Ndao (10 PPG, 5 RPG)
7th: James Demery (7 PPG, 4 RPG)
The point guard position is a case of not having any other natural point guards with experience on the roster. Newkirk is quick and has the trappings of a good passer (23% assist rate as a freshman) but his shooting (35% true shooting percentage) was amongst the worst in the NCAA. He must improve his shot or freshmen Kimble and Clover will happily take his spot. The West Virginia transfer, Aaron Brown, showed flashes of brilliance and athleticism after shaking off the rust during the 2014-15 season. He does everything well enough but no skill jumps out. He's the most intriguing player in the starting lineup for me. He’s a big, multi-dimensional guard who can handle pressure. Hopefully he can build off of a solid first year in Philly.
Bembry returns as the starting 3. He is the favorite to win A-10 Player of the Year on a middle-of-the-pack team. That's how good this guy plays. He will be their go-to guy and should look to follow up a fantastic sophomore campaign. Forward, Isaiah Miles is a player between positions. He's more suited for the small forward spot especially considering his affinity for three-pointers but he did an admirable job banging down low and was second on the team in rebounding with 5 per game. His outside shot is vital due to the dearth of shooting on this team. Baumann will be asked to anchor a fairly strong defensive team (115th in defensive rating nationally last year) down low. His 65% field-goal percentage should be taken advantage of more often this year if the shooters continue to struggle. He is a strong, bulky guy who can bang with the biggest of the A-10.
Papa Ndao and James Demery should be the first guys off the bench. Ndao returns after a year of injury, but is considered one of the best shooters on the team. As a long big man, he has no trouble shooting over defenders. He also can put the ball on the floor to work his way past defenders. He will be a good complement to Baumann and Jai Williams, who play more in the post. Demery brings athleticism to the table. If he can prove himself to be a strong defensive commodity and improve his shooting woes, he could see his minutes increase. Freshmen Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble, Chris Clover, and Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva could also see heavy minutes off the bench as the season progresses. Kimble will make an instant impact from game one, but Clover and Oliva may have more limited roles as the year begins.
While the three-point shooting looks dire, highly touted shooters Lamarr Kimble and Chris Clover, both of Philadelphia, headline the incoming freshmen. Due to the team's poor shooting, these young guards may be relied upon more heavily than the average freshmen on Martelli's bench. Ndao also returns after missing the year due to illness. In the 2013-14 season, Ndao shot 40% from deep in limited minutes and may be a vital sharpshooting sixth man that St. Joe's desperately lacked last season. Aaron Brown could help the team's cause by improving upon his 29% 3-point shot.
Down low, SJU has struggled since the departure of Ron Roberts and Halil Kanacevic two seasons ago. With the loss of Obi Romeo, Javon Baumann and Jai Williams will carry the bulk of the post presence for the Hawks. Baumann and Williams both posted respectable defensive ratings of 99.2 and 97.8, respectively, last year and their biggest contributions will continue to come on the defensive end. Williams, at 6'9", is the tallest Hawk who will receive extended minutes, while athletic tweener Markell Lodge (6'7", 210) will be expected to shoulder some of the rebounding load after redshirting his freshman season. Still, "do-it-all" DeAndre Bembry led the team with an 11.5% total rebounding percentage last year and looks to grab boards at a higher rate than most wings.
Expect the Hawks to also have a deep team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see many different combinations of players throughout contests. They can go as far as 12-13 deep. If coach Martelli can use that to his advantage, and keep opposing teams on their heels, St. Joe’s could be a sleeper to win the A-10. Rhode Island and George Washington, two teams who were in the NIT last season, return strong. The Rams bring in a plethora of new players and potential superstar in E.C. Mathews. George Washington, on the other hand, welcomes back loads of experience. Dayton should be strong as well. And finally, it is common understanding to never, ever count out VCU or Davidson. It won’t be easy to win the conference by any means, but the Hawks definitely have the talent to do so.
Last year, SJU shot a putrid 40% from the field as a team and that must improve if they expect to compete in a deep Atlantic 10. Rising sophomores Shavar Newkirk (28%) and James Demery (37%) will be expected to improve their shooting significantly. Only three players, Isaiah Miles (35%), Bembry (33%), and Chris Wilson (30%) shot 30% or higher from three and Wilson graduated.
Coaches and Player Comments
Coach Phil Martelli
“The team is very hard working and very willing to be coached. They have a tremendous spirit about them. They make you want to come and practice with them each and every day.”
“We would like to emulate Temple football.”
“There is no kid that you would want to root for more than [James Demery].”
“Their communication with each is very strong. You can't walk by the locker room without hearing laughter or conversation going on.”
“[Demery] is shooting it and thinking its going in. Last year he shot it and thought it wasn’t going in.”
“First and only goal is to get more wins. That’s the only thing on my mind and radar right now: get more wins.”
“I don’t feel like [my role] will change too much from last year. We have a couple older guys, but I feel like I have to lead some of the older guys as well. A lot of older guys still look up to me, even though they might be two or three years older than me.”
“[James Demery] is a little bit more patient. Last year he played a lot faster, like you would think a freshman would be… His jump shot looks a lot better. Him and [Shavar Newkirk] have really been working here all summer with me.”
“I feel like playing any position. You throw me out there at the five, I’ll be good.”
“Assistant coach [David] Duda is really good at improving jump shots. Shavar [Newkirk], James [Demery ], and I, all three of us have been working together all summer. We got repetition -- a lot of shots.”
Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva
“I feel like I am a good passer for a big man. You know, I’m the high low...I am a little faster [than the other big men], I can put the ball on the floor a little more.”
“I got to work on my shot to spread off the floor a little more.”
“I am trying to take the ball up on a fast break if I can.”
“Well, I’m a hardworker, I would consider myself a good rebounder and a guy that keeps everybody positive by communicating.”
“My freshman year from surgery I gained a lot of weight, I was like 300 pounds, so that year off gave me time to get into shape, get my mind right and my ankle right. That off year definitely helped me out a lot.”
“Since I’m a big guy, I kind of move slow off of angles, so me and my strength coaches worked a lot on my footwork and getting quicker.”
-Benjamin Simon & Chase Harrison
Photo: Benjamin Simon/The Empire
-LaMarr "Fresh" Kimble ruled out for the season with injury to his left foot.