By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
PHILADELPHIA — The smooth, silky glide has always been there. It currently comes on stronger, thicker legs. Xzayvier Brown, the former Roman Catholic star, is getting there. The St. Joe’s 6-foot-2 freshman guard is carrying chunks of his game to this higher, more physical stage.
Brown was usually the best player on the court in high school. He knew when he could put it on cruise control and when he had to press. Under Hawks’ coach Billy Lange playing major Division I college basketball, there is no such thing. Brown finds himself boxing out, playing in-your-face defense, and diving for any loose ball within the tri-state area.
On Wednesday night against visiting American at the Hagan Arena, Brown’s game took another nice step in his progression, leading the Hawks with a game-high 20 points in a tougher-than-it-looked 69-53 win over American.
St. Joe's freshman Xzayvier Brown led the Hawks with 20 points Wednesday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
In winning their fourth-straight game, the Hawks (7-2) got 14 from Erik Reynolds II and 13 from Rasheer Fleming.
For Brown, his comfort point is rising in his new world.
“It is very different,” he admitted. “To me, I would say the endurance (at the D-I level) is different. Everybody is good, so you have to play hard on both ends the whole game. It’s a faster pace. All the players are older, smarter, stronger. This is like my freshman year in high school.
“I’m not the strongest. I don’t have that right now. I’m still getting there with every game and every day, because everything is still new to me. As each games goes, I get more and more comfortable. I’m not there yet, and I think our team is nowhere near our limit.”
The Hawks were greeted with a new title before they took the Hagan Arena court, “Big 5 champions.” This game came within an interesting spot, sandwiched between beating Temple in the Big 5 Classic championship on Saturday and with a very good, undefeated Princeton team waiting in the wings on Sunday afternoon back at Hagan.
Yet, the Hawks did what they were supposed to do against American (4-6), a 14-point underdog entering the game.
“One of the things that hit me it was probably about three-quarters of the way through the (Texas A&M) Commerce game that if you’re a coach right now, you’re coaching the human condition more than you’re coaching basketball,” Lange said. “I truly believe that. That’s not a cop out. We have to have strategies, schemes, things of that nature, but you’re coaching the human condition. I honestly tell them, ‘You’re probably feeling good about yourselves, but we’re going to be upset if we don’t give our best effort.’ I just address it. So when the game is over, I just told them, you earned that by your preparation.”
This is the first time the Hawks have started a season 7-2 since 2015-16, when they went 28-8 under Phil Martelli. It also marked the last season in which the Hawks won the Atlantic 10 Conference title and the last time they were in the NCAA Tournament and won a tournament game.
St. Joe’s has not had a winning season since.
It looks like that will change this season.
They are sharing the ball.
Four different players have led the Hawks in scoring over this four-game winning streak (Cameron Brown vs. Sacred Heart; Erik Reynolds II vs. Villanova; Fleming vs. Temple; and Xzayvier Brown vs. American).
They are doing it with defense.
American held one lead, 2-0. That was it. The Hawks went into halftime in firm control, 30-18. That was created by defensive stands where St. Joe’s held the Eagles through a few dry spells. One came between 16:20 to 13:08 when the Eagles went without scoring. They went 5 minutes, 29 seconds without hitting a shot from floor, bookended by Westtown product Matt Mayock’s three-pointer with 17:41 left in the half and his driving layup with 12:12 left.
Cameron Brown gave the Hawks their first double-digit lead with a three-pointer with 4:43 remaining in the half.
St. Joe’s followed the winning script the rest of the way. The Hawks held the lead for more than 17 minutes of the first half and more than 37 minutes for the game, while holding the Eagles to 24-percent shooting (6-for-25) for the half and 37.3-percent (19-for-51) for the game.
The Hawks entered the game ranked No. 16 in the country in opponent shooting percentage (37.39%). During this four-game winning streak, the Hawks have held Sacred Heart (34.5 %), Villanova (39.3 %), Temple (35.4 %) and now American (37.3%) to less than 40-percent shooting.
“We have a group of guys who like each other a lot, and there is a connection there, you have to talk on defense no matter what,” Lange said. “When you have a personal connection, a genuine care for each other, it makes it a little bit easier. It would be way easier if we could text each other on the court. They would be much better defensively (laughs). Everything we do is based off effort.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, 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.