By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Things have changed under Billy Lange at Saint Joseph’s. He didn’t arrive on the Southwest Philly campus at 5600 City Avenue with bugles and trumpets blaring in 2019, but rather pitchforks and torches after the firing of popular Hawks’ legendary coach Phil Martelli.
It wasn’t Lange’s fault.
At the time, some ardent Hawks’ supporters could not see that.
Gradually, Lange, through sheer will and determination, is filling up Hagan Arena. The Hawks have not had a winning record since the 2015-16 season, which coincides with the last time St. Joe’s has been to the NCAA Tournament and last won a tournament game.
What Lange has built could change that eight-year dry spell this season. His vision when he first got the job is beginning to shape into fruition. With his top three scorers back in Erik Reynolds II, Cameron Brown and Lynn Greer and Kacper Klaczek, then include 7-foot center Christ Essandoko, the Hawks will have a formidable starting five.
Add the incoming recruiting class of standout locals Xzayvier Brown and Anthony Finkley (both from Roman Catholic), along with Shawn Simmons, Jr. (Philadelphia, Pa./Hillcrest Prep) and Dasear Haskins (Camden) to a roster that already includes last season’s standout freshmen Christian Winborne and Rasheer Fleming and they will have depth.
Under Lange, the program has gone from 6-26, to 5-15 (COVID-19 season), to 11-19 and last year, 16-17. In the Atlantic-10, the Hawks have moved from 2-16, 3-9 (COVID season), 5-13 to 8-10 last year.
We talked to Lange in April about the program’s growth and where it is going as part of our series of City 6 Q+As. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
City 6 Q+A Series (Links will appear as stories are published)
MBB: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | St. Joe’s | Temple | Villanova
WBB: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | St. Joe’s | Temple | Villanova
St. Joe's head coach Billy Lange talks to guard Lynn Greer during a game this season. (Photo: CoBL File)
City Of Basketball Love: What does the new configuration of the Big 5 mean for you with the inclusion of Drexel?
Billy Lange: I’m super excited about it. Drexel long deserved to be recognized the way they are right now. They have a great history, great coaches, and have some great players. It’s a great school. It continues to enhance the great passion of college basketball in the city of Philadelphia. That’s best news, the addition of Drexel, and number two, this exciting new format with an actual round-robin champion to be played at the Wells Fargo Center in a tripleheader is great for the universities, the alumni bases, for the current student bodies, and the competitiveness will be brought to that venue for one day. I think it’s terrific. I commend all of the people who that foresight to make this change.
CoBL: Let’s delve into your team. Were you more pleased with this last season in comparison to past years?
BL: I’m not really a comparison guy, so I don’t want to say that. I don’t think around those terms. What I was pleased with was our guy’s endurance. I was pleased with the development of them individually, and collectively as the season went on. I felt from about the second week of January until the end of the season, we were playing as well as anybody in our conference. We sustained two injuries/illnesses that kind of derailed the group a bit in February, and as they did the whole season, they found a way to endure. In our last 10 days, I thought we were pretty good again. I’m encouraged by that.
CoBL: What setbacks were they?
BL: Kacper Klaczek, who was starting for us at the time, and Ejike Obinna.
CoBL: You’ve gone from 6-26 in 2019, your first year, to 16-17 last year, and each time I saw St. Joe’s last year, you looked good. Paint me leprechaun green. What improvements do you like about the program?
BL: A few things. One, we were able to bring some guys in and watch the developmental curve from freshman to sophomore year, sophomore to junior year, that part. I think the overall synergy and collaboration between the presidential administration, the athletic department and our own program has all grown. We have all grown together and found ways to be competitive in the current landscape. We all recognize the amazing history of our program. At the same time, how do we keep that history and build and create a future, because of the way things change. I am pleased with the synergy as we’ve all grown together. I think that we’ve recruited at a good level. We just have to keep going. It’s never ending (laughs).
CoBL: Have you lost anyone in the transfer portal?
BL: We have. We lost two, Quin Berger and Louie Bleechmore.
CoBL: You have a lot back.
BL: We do. We have four of our top five scorers coming back. Erik Reynolds (II) is back, Cameron Brown is coming back for his COVID-19 season, Lynn Greer is back. Obinna graduated, but Klaczek is back.
CoBL: You have a big kid coming in who can have an immediate impact in Christ Essandoko, a 7-foot, 285-pound center. How much of an impact player can he be?
BL: That is correct. Christ has been here. He’s from Paris, France. He’s going to have to get adjusted to playing, since he hasn’t played in a year, but he can be an impact player. He has the ability to do that. It’s just when that all comes together, but he has the ability to do that. He’s probably not 285 right now. He’s a little leaner than that (laughs). He is a big guy though. Christ is a phenomenal paint defender and rim protector and a terrific passer. That right away will help us. Offensively, he’s a great screen setter and you can play through him. He has a point-guard’s mind in terms of wanting to pass. He’ll find guys. He’ll allow us to be five out, which is what our preference is. You can go through him, so that stuff is exciting for us. Beyond anything, he’s incredibly competitive.
CoBL: So, Christ helps you immediately?
BL: I’m always going to undersell. I’m very mindful, and respectful how hard Division I college basketball is. He is one, still a freshman. And two, he has sat out. I won’t use the word ‘immediate,’ so I will say he’s going to have a big impact on our program at some point. If you’re saying, is he going to start, the probability is yes. I’m not going sit here and lie to you either (laughs). I just don’t know if he’s throwing a knockout punch in round one (laughs).
CoBL: What strides did you see in Erik Reynolds’ game?
BL: At the end of the year, he understood how hard it was going to be for him every game to get a shot. He grew in the endurance, I would use, and physicality that is needed to compete offensively. By the end of the year, I would say our last four games, he really showed, ‘OK, I understand this. I’m going to have to work really hard to get open.’ His offensive motor improved terrifically. I shouldn’t just say by the end of the year. At Loyola, he had a rough first half, and the second half he was incredible. That’s growing. That’s part of what college basketball is supposed to be. Guys are supposed to stay at one place and get better. That’s supposed to work. He’s showing that.
CoBL: What kind of improvement did you see in Cameron Brown?
BL: I saw the confidence, the aggressiveness. Cam’s role has been the guy to move the offense and allow other players to score and be timely. This season, we needed him to adjust to a more aggressive role, looking more to score, looking more to shoot, but without being selfish. I think he found that balance. I think he can get better at it. He has a whole other year to continue to improve in that way.
St. Joe's coach Billy Lange, above, led the Hawks to a 16-17 record last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
CoBL: What kind of improvement did you see in Lynn Greer?
BL: Aah man, his non-conference season to conference season was like night and day. Number one, his jump shot in league play was much improved. He puts a lot into it. He improved his assist-to-turnover ratio. I thought his leadership improved. Lynn was a freshman. It might have said sophomore on paper, but in reality, he was a freshman to us. I thought he was one of the most improved players in our league. Within the 18 games we played in our league, the last 12, the last 14 games, I thought he played at an all-conference level. He's a great kid, and honest to goodness, I have great guys. Though it’s not a big deal in the world anymore, I have great people. I believe in good people. It’s not high on a lot of people’s lists, but it is on mine.
CoBL: Is this shaping into the program you envisioned?
BL: I like our trajectory to the vision. We’re not about goals winning these games, or those games. We have a vision to be a sustainable national program that represents our university and represents the history of the program. Because of that, it is taking that shape. The resistance and the opposition that we have is the current landscape of college basketball with an endless transfer portal, and an unregulated name, image and likeness (NIL) collective. This is the way I believe to do it, and this is the way I believe to do it at Saint Joseph’s. My mentors, who have had incredible influence in my life, this how I learned from them. This is what I believe. I’ll answer your question steadfastly, yes. But I say humbly, this is going to be hard to do in this current landscape. I get it. This is St. Joe’s. I believe St. Joe’s is a transformational place. I feel this is the way you do it. You recruit high school guys, I’m not saying you don’t take transfers, we have benefitted from it as well, and you grow them and develop them. They play for their university and they play for each other. That’s just the way I believe it has to be done. So, I’m pleased with our trajectory, but I’m also aware that we’re going up against some serious challenges.
CoBL: Who made the biggest bounce last year that will be a factor this coming season?
BL: Had Kacper Klaczek not gotten mono, he was on his way to possibly being the most improved player in the league, or in that discussion. He just got derailed the last six or seven weeks. He’s heading that way. The other guy is Rasheer Fleming (Camden). He played a lot of minutes as a freshman. No one ever really expected it. We had a lot of conversations during recruitment about possibly red-shirting him, because he wasn’t playing that much in high school. He was very, very young. I thought he had an amazing season, given that the expectations were not that high, because of his lack of experience. I feel he has a chance to take a seismic leap between his freshman and sophomore year.
CoBL: You have Finkley, Brown, Haskins and Simmons Jr. coming in. What do like about this group?
BL: You also have Essandoko, who will be a freshman, but he’s been here, and Simmons will be a freshman and he joined us in the second semester. They are a competitive and unselfish group that has a great deal of passion and high basketball IQ. They’re team guys. You don’t plan to get a whole class like that. We were able to do that. They come from great families and really good moms.
CoBL: When I did the story on Haskins committing, he was already talking about St. Joe’s in ‘us’ and ‘we,’ and Brown and Finkley, and Simmons are all locals. How important will they be?
BL: They’re team and program people first. It’s evident when you talk to them and how they play. Secondly, in their own ways, they’re very competitive. Those two things stick out to me. They have a great feel for basketball. They understand how to play with other good players. They come from winning programs and understand how to do that. Those are the common threads between all four of them.
CoBL: This looks like the deepest roster you are going to have.
BL: We’ve had time to recruit and we’ve had time to rebound from a roster we started out with that had four guys. Then we had a pandemic that forced us to make a lot of really tough decisions and really limited our ability to recruit, and we were behind to begin with. Erik Reynolds is going to be a junior. He’s really our first natural recruiting cycle, which begins when guys are high school juniors. We’ve had three cycles now when we were able to do that. That’s why it was deepest. We were able to hold on to Cam Brown for a fifth, which says a lot about what he thinks about Saint Joseph’s. We’re deep because we’ve had the time to do in the way we wanted to do it, which is recruit high school guys and develop them.
CoBL: It’s been a while, but the ingredients are there for this to be a winning team.
BL: We could be. I really think that we would have had a winning record had we been healthy last year. I have no doubt it. I think we could have been a 20-win team. Edge (Obinna) is a big replacement, because he provided great force for us. We are going to have mix in some young guys who deserve opportunities to get experience from the jump. We do have some experience. It’s still young, but it’s young and experienced. We’ve been young and inexperienced. Now, we’re young and experienced. You have Cam Brown and Erik Reynolds who have started every game since they have essentially been here. Kacper will be in his third year with the program, although he had an injury in his first year and an illness. He has game experience, and Lynn, though listed as a junior I still see him as a sophomore, has game experience and (Christian) Winborne and Fleming played as freshmen. Young is young. I would rather be young and experienced, than young and inexperienced. Then there is Essandoko, who has a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He has a chance to be a very good player. He is learning to work and play Division I college basketball.
CoBL: Finally, lets talk about the jump you had to take, from the trust the program had to rebuild from its avid fanbase. We spoke about that prior to last year (story link here) in trying to regain the Hawks’ fanbase over. Again, it was not your fault. It had nothing to do with you. But there was venom thrust at the administration and, unjustly, at the program. You have turned this program around. I saw a packed Hagan Arena this past season. You have this program going in the right direction. Do you sense a tighter embrace from the Hawks’ fanbase?
BL: For me personally, it’s not about me. So, I don’t judge it like that. I just don’t. It’s been hard. I won’t lie about that. It’s been hard. To me, it’s not about that. St. Joseph’s is a community. It’s more than just a university. It’s definitely a great university, but it is also a community. Not every college has a community. We have one, which is awesome. I think it is what makes St. Joe’s great. They are passionate about their basketball in this community. When we have Hagan soldout, it is significant for us here. It is significant advantage. It is significant boost. It is significant for our players to see what this place is about. So, I’m hopeful that they are embracing Saint Joseph’s basketball. It’s not about me. It should never be about me. It should be about the program and the guys on the court that represent the community so well. I can tell you I haven’t felt embraced in certain moments (laughs). But I have understood why. I have worked hard and faithfully to try and not take it personally. Sometimes, it’s been easier. Sometimes, it’s been hard. But in the end, I have always understood and respected why it’s been that way. It’s because people are passionate about basketball in this community.
CoBL: We’re going to have a little bit of an argument here, because I think you have been embraced. I see you everywhere. I see and hear the reaction of these area high school coaches to you. I think the healing has taken place. It’s taken time. There were scars. I know the administration took knocks, and unfortunately, the program was a byproduct of that. Has healing taken place?
BL: We’re not arguing (laughs). I just don’t think that way. I’m happy you’re saying that and I’m not going to fight you on it (laughs). It’s a great program because of all of the amazing coaches before me here at St. Joe’s. I don’t know if healing has taken place, because it wasn’t for me to heal. Your first question was a really good one. Someone was going to be the head coach at St. Joe’s. I could promise you the program was not going to be extinct. I’ve tried this entire time to be very consistent in what I’ve said, because it is how I felt. I never, ever, ever looked at this as I was replacing anyone. I don’t look at it like that. There is no way another human being replaces another human being. It would be dismissive and disrespectful to feel that way. So, I’ve never looked at it like that. I’ve tried to be me and do what I’ve had to do. I’ve understood there were a lot of things done, which I told you on the record, when people said it was not personal, I called b—t on that. It’s ridiculous, because it might not have been aimed personally at me, but it affects me personally. I’ve always stepped back and said, ‘This is because people care about this place so much.’ Passion is not always positive, right? But I would rather have passion than apathy. We are a passionate community. That’s what we are. If the healing and the embracing have taken place, it is for everyone else to decide.
CoBL: Have you healed? You took a lot of unjustified knocks when you first got here.
BL: What is there to heal from? First off, nothing was ever done to my face. Now, my family has experienced it. When you’re getting yelled at and booed in your arena when you’re just trying to do the best you can. They experienced it. My kids experienced it. I’m not on social media. I don’t pay any attention to it. But I’m also not oblivious to it. I’m aware what’s going on. If you don’t hear it, you can feel it. This is good, because you can personally relate to it I will be the first to admit, this has been very hard, much harder than I expected. But when I look back now, if I’m being aware, what did I expect? I expected that this was going to be very hard. Within that, we have had a lot of good favor, too, and we had some tough favor. We lost some close, questionable games (in the beginning). We lost some great players like Taylor Funk in year one, and Ryan Daly in year two to injury, which derailed progress. But I keep on looking at all the positives we have had. I just feel that I’m not in a position where I had to heal. I’m not angry at anyone. I try to be the same person that I’ve always been.
CoBL: Did you lose anyone from your coaching staff?
BL: We did. Almost our whole staff is back. We lost John Griffin, who became the head coach at Bucknell, which is awesome. Everyone else will be back. We’ll elevate within.
CoBL: Is this 2023 team capable of making an NCAA Tournament push?
BL: We worked our butts off to get to this point. These guys know my vision. It’s not wins, it’s not losses. My vision is to be a national-championship program. On paper, there is talent, does it stay healthy and does it mature? What is the rate we do those two things? We are not shying away from being more competitive. In terms of a goal, we want to be the most united team we can be at the end of the season. I do not know what the results will be because of that, but I know what that feels and looks like. With this group, although we have enough returning players, we have to start that process all over again. You have new guys, with new roles and new ambitions, and you’re bringing in new basketball players. If at the end of the season, it takes us to the NCAA Tournament, we can live with that. If it doesn’t, and we can look each other in the eye, knowing we were the most united team we could have been, we can live with that, too. What we can’t live with is not being the most united team. We can’t live with that.
Do me a favor, no more Army hoodies (laughs). I’m a Navy guy (laughs).
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.
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