Pierfrancesco "Checco" Oliva is one of three forwards on St. Joe's roster who can stretch the floor. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Corey Sharp (@ByCoreySharp)
Phil Martelli admits he sleeps a lot better at night when he doesn’t have to worry about his team putting points on the board.
Two seasons ago, amid Saint Joseph’s run to the Atlantic 10 championship and second round of the NCAA Tournament, the 22nd-year head coach had little to think about in that regard.
The Hawks averaged 77.2 ppg in 2015-16, utilizing the 32nd-most efficient offensive attack in the country, according to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy. They were terrific at taking care of the ball, turning it over on a smaller percentage of possessions than all but three teams in Division I basketball.
Much of their efficiency was due to a two-point shooting percentage (52.3) which ranked 46th in the country.
While star wing DeAndré Bembry was certainly a crucial part of the team’s overall success, he struggled from deep, hitting only 26.6 percent of his triples. It was the Hawks’ forwards who made sure they were a threat from distance.
Isaiah Miles had a breakout senior year, as the 6-8 forward averaged 18.8 ppg and shooting 38.5 percent beyond the arc. Another 6-8 senior, Papa Ndao, came off the bench to hit 35.6 percent of his treys. Freshman Pierfranceso Oliva started 30 games, averaging 16.5 minutes, and hit 30.2 percent from three.
Wing forward Aaron Brown, who only hit 28 percent of his threes as a sophomore and junior, knocked in 34 percent from deep.
“I’m just more comfortable having skilled guys on the floor and being able to score the ball,” Martelli said. “It’s hard to play this game when you can’t score.”
Last season was a different story.
St. Joe’s went 11-20, and finished near the bottom of the A-10 standings with just four wins in conference play. The Hawks went through a laundry list of departures and injuries: Miles and Ndao moved on due to graduation, while Bembry left a year early for the NBA, where he became a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks.
Starting guard Shavar Newkirk was having a career year, averaging more than 20 ppg before tearing his ACL on December 30. Point guard Lamarr Kimble, forced to pick up much of the slack after Newkirk went down, missed the final seven games because of a foot injury. Junior wing James Demery missed the first 10 games of the year with a stress fracture in his foot. Freshman forward Lorenzo Edwards played in one game because of shoulder surgery and Oliva, now a redshirt sophomore, didn’t see the floor at all due to knee surgery.
The Hawks’ roster ran thin, and radically changed their style of play because they couldn’t stretch the floor. St. Joe’s only remaining frontcourt options -- Markell Lodge, Javon Baumann, and Jai Williams -- are pure interior players, the 6-10 Baumann and 6-9 Williams more grounded centers and Lodge a bouncy 6-7 power forward. But there isn’t a jump shot amongst them.
And so St. Joe’s offensive efficiency dipped to 215th in country last year; the Hawks’ two-point field goal percentage dropped to 45.7 percent, 301st in the country. Since the bigs couldn’t shoot, the loss of the team’s best 3-point shooter in Newkirk (39.6 percent) put more pressure on the Hawks to convert two-point shots.
Now, all of the players injured last year – with the exception of Newkirk, still rehabbing his knee – are back to full strength.
And they’ve solved their big-man shooting problem, bringing in a pair of forwards who can stroke it in Anthony Longpré and Taylor Funk. Adding those two to the return of Oliva will give Martelli the ability to stretch the floor once again with skilled big men.
“I can’t wait to figure out -- we were just upstairs in the coaches’ meeting... what’s the combination, who do you want to see with whom?” Martelli said.
“For instance, two of our (forwards) played together the other day in practice, and they got hammered on the glass,” the coach explained. “So I can say to them, ‘you know you two got crushed on the glass so either you’re going to pick up your rebounding or you’re not going to play together. And if you’re not going to play together, the pie gets smaller.’”
Longpre, a native of Montreal, moved to Maryland for his sophomore year of high school at Glenleg Country. The 6-10, 240 pounder averaged 14.7 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game in three seasons with the school.
This past summer, Longpré played for the Canadian U19 World Cup National Team that won its first ever gold medal at FIBA international competition over the summer in Cairo, Egypt.
The Canadian has watched the Hawks’ tournament team from two seasons ago, and plans on his skillset being used in its entirety. It’s part of why Longpre chose to come to St. Joe’s.
“They definitely told me if I came here, I would be able to stretch the floor and not just get stuck inside because I’m one of the biggest guys on the team,” he said. “I’d be able to do my thing.”
Funk’s strength is his ability to consistently hit the outside shot. Martelli has been on the 6-9, 225-pounder since his sophomore year at Manheim Central, where the newcomer is the school’s all-time leading scorer with almost 2,000 points. He connected on 229 3-pointers during his high school career.
Those two join a frontcourt that already has Williams, Lodge and Oliva, as well as redshirt freshman forward Lorenzo Edwards. Those six will battle it out for minutes at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ all season long.
“People [have been] really competing since the summer and I felt that happened because there’s a lot of competition,” Oliva said. “If you don’t have competition, you’re never going to go hard enough. I think that’s one of the game-changers.”
Oliva will step back onto the court for the first time on November 11 at Toledo since the Hawks fell to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago.
With Longpré and Funk on the roster as well, Oliva sees a lot of similarities between this year’s team and the one that made some magic happen in March of 2016.
“We had five guys that could really stretch the floor and we were pretty successful,” he said. “So that’s definitely a good sign.”
Hopefully that means Martelli can get some rest.