Taylor Funk (above) will see a much different role thanks to a reformed St. Joe's frontcourt. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
For a couple of weeks during the offseason, Taylor Funk had to revert back to an all-too-familiar role.
With minor injuries keeping two of the larger frontcourt members on St. Joe’s men’s basketball roster out of a couple practices, Funk — a 6-foot-8, 215-pound redshirt senior — was back where he spent large proportions of the 2020-21 season: the center position.
For those two weeks, Funk spent his days at practice banging bodies with a new face among the Hawks, that of grad transfer Ejike Obinna, who’s got two inches and 30 pounds on Funk.
Playing the ‘5’ was nothing new. But going up against that kind of size in practice?
“I wasn't ready for that,” Funk said.
At that point, it was clear to Funk. The 2021-22 Hawks are huge.
A year ago, St. Joe’s tallest player that recorded any active minutes was 6-11 Anton Jansson. Only one other player standing 6-10 or taller — then-senior Anthony Longpré — saw the floor last season, though there were plenty of guards between 6-5 and 6-8.
In terms of a team-wide average, the Hawks were by no means a small team last year, ranking 40th in team height per Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, but they certainly lacked individual size and physicality, especially among their more popular lineups. Jansson and Longpré, the lone players on last year’s roster over 6-10, averaged just 12.5 and 5.8 minutes apiece, good for 11th and 12th among all Hawks.
When it came to consistent rotation contributors, Funk at 6-8 was just one of two players listed as taller than 6-foot-6. And more than a height problem, it was a muscle problem.
“I had to be more physical because I wasn't as strong or as big as the people I was guarding,” Funk added. “So, it definitely got me in foul trouble.”
As a result, players like Funk ended up in somewhat of an unnatural position. And head coach Billy Lange was well aware. Funk recalls a meeting with Lange after the conclusion of last season, wherein Lange promised his rising redshirt senior a new-look frontcourt.
“It was just unfortunate that you had to guard the five,” Funk remembers Lange telling him. “You're not that player.
“You don't have to be that for us,” he added. “So, I'm going to get you some size here.”
Ejike Obinna, a transfer from Vanderbilt, adds some serious bulk to the Hawks' frontcourt. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Through the transfer portal, Lange brought in nearly 14 feet and 500 pounds’ worth of experienced talent, in the form of Obinna, a 6-10, 245-pound Vanderbilt transfer, and Charles Coleman, a 7-footer from East Carolina who also weighs in at 245.
Throw in the addition of muscular 6-8 freshman Kacper Klaczek, as well as the return of Jansson, and suddenly, Hawk Hill feels more like Hawk Mountain.
“We needed to add people that could make baskets in and around the lane,” Lange mentioned, among other key attributes. “Part of that is development… and then, part of that is recruiting. So, I feel like, between the people that we've had and the focus on their development and then the pieces that we were able to add to the team, I feel like we've addressed some of those needs.
“It's not optimal yet,” he added, “But I like the trajectory of it.”
Among the forest of trees on that mountain, Funk’s 6-8 frame doesn’t seem all that towering anymore.
But that’s not a knock on Funk – it’s a positive opportunity. The talented redshirt senior who finished second among all Hawks last season in scoring (17.4 ppg) while shooting 35 percent from distance now has the opportunity to settle into more of a wing role in his final year of eligibility.
“I trained for it, I'm ready for it,” Funk said. “I actually enjoy it more than guarding the five. I mean, I got quicker on my feet, and at the next level that's what I'm going to have to do. So why not start preparing for that now?”
Both Obinna, a redshirt senior, and Coleman, a redshirt sophomore, were rated as three-star recruits in their respective high school classes, but struggled to cement themselves as rotation players at their previous schools.
Statistically speaking, Obinna most recently averaged about two points and two rebounds in eight minutes. Coleman appeared in just 48 total minutes in 2020-21, but was a more consistent contributor the year prior, averaging three points and three rebounds in 16.6 minutes.
At 7 feet tall and nearly 250 pounds, Coleman is one of the biggest bodies in the whole A-10. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While the numbers aren’t all that eye-catching, the biggest source of optimism comes from the untapped potential found in the pair’s physical measurables and mental immeasurables. Both bigs bring the blend of physicality and stature — as well as a noticeable level of seasoned maturity — that the Hawks missed a year ago.
“It's very clear to me that they know how to work like guys that have been in college,” Lange said. “(Obinna) played a lot in his early time at Vanderbilt, and then not much after. (Coleman) really didn't have a season last season. So, they have experience in terms of, they've been in games, they know the right questions to ask, they understand why you're working on things, but I actually think they have a ton of upside despite that experience, because they haven't played much recently.”
For a team that’s looking to right the ship of a 5-15 campaign in 2020-21, that kind of added experience could prove vital. The size helps, too, as St. Joe’s was outrebounded by eight per game and allowed out-blocked by two per game.
“We struggled every game last year to win the rebound battle,” Funk said. “Bringing these guys in, it's making everyone a better rebounder — guards, bigs, myself, because we have to go up against these guys. These are probably some of the biggest guys in the league.”
The Hawks showed encouraging signs a year ago, winning four of their last five games, but certainly have a ways to go to return to the upper echelon of the Atlantic 10. They’ll also have to replace the leadership and production of last season’s leading scorer, Ryan Daly, who averaged more than 18 points in both of his seasons at St. Joe’s after transferring from Delaware.
In terms of major production, though, he’s really the only significant loss. The Hawks bring back just shy of 60 percent of last year’s points with six of their top seven scorers returning, while of course adding noteworthy pieces — not just the key transfers, but two intriguing freshmen in Klaczek and three-star guard Erik Reynolds II.
Kacper Klaczek (above) is a 6-8 wing with above-the-rim athleticism and a college-ready body. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While Klaczek adds an extra influx of the size the Hawks needed, Reynolds has the opportunity to be a key playmaker with significant minutes. Lange noted that he “would suspect” the 6-foot-2 Maryland native to start this season, having already caught the attention of his coaches in the preseason.
“He's really added an element of ball-handling that we did not have,” Lange said. ‘He’s going to play a lot because he simply has a skill set that we just don't have a lot of guys that can do. As a person, as a teammate, as somebody to coach, I thought we were getting a special guy; he's exceeded that.”
When you factor in the likes of Hall and Funk, there’s a decent possibility that St. Joe’s could send out a group of five that features four different players over 6-8.
Lange didn’t shut down the possibility of such a lineup. He made no guarantees, but the thought alone of facing a quintet of players with that much height is staggering.
“Man, that’d be pretty cool,” Lange said.
“I for sure see lineups where Obinna and Coleman on the floor together, and it could be a good period of the game,” he added.
However the Hawks decide to deploy their bevy of bigs this season, it’ll be on display starting November 9 against Maryland-Eastern Shore. St. Joe’s will have its fair share of non-conference challenges like USC and either Georgetown or San Diego State at the PayCom Wooden Legacy event in Anaheim, as well as the full Big 5 slate before entering a deep Atlantic 10 schedule.
And hopes are high — or tall, one might say — for a big step back in the right direction in 2021-22.
CoBL’s Josh Verlin contributed to this story