Holy Family's Maliq Sanders (above) is one of several freshman who played big roles for the Tigers as freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Two years ago, Holy Family went 26-6, winning the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC) championship and earning the right to host one of eight eight-team regionals in the NCAA Tournament for the very first time. Even though the Tigers’ season ended in the first round of the tournament, it was the culmination of a terrific first six years of head coach R.C. Kehoe’s tenure at the Northeast Philadelphia school.
But the end of that 2015-16 season meant the graduation of a nine-man senior class, and so Kehoe and his staff had to bring in almost an entire basketball team in one offseason. They ended up with six true freshmen and JUCO transfer Dyllon Hudson-Emery joining two redshirt rookies, along with senior Shane Neher and junior Maurice Smith.
And though Hudson-Emery (22.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and freshman wing Randy Bell (23.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) put up some impressive scoring numbers, Holy Family never quite got its act together, losing its first three games and never getting above .500 in finishing 11-17 overall with a 9-10 record in CACC play. Both Bell and Hudson-Emery left the team in the offseason, but Kehoe has a good portion of that freshman class returning with experience, including 6-6 wings Maliq Sanders (10.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) Austin Chabot (6.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg), and forward Sean Griffin (5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
Joining the program this year are two true freshmen, Lower Merion 6-4 wing guard Terrell Jones and Father Judge 6-0 point guard Mikey Power, plus three JUCO transfers in 5-11 combo guard Mekhi Bryant (Baltimore City CC/Pennsbury, Pa.), Jerrel Burke (Northampton CC/Pennsbury, Pa.) and Jalen Thompson (Harford CC/Concord, Del.)
Here’s our (copy-edited) chat with Kehoe about his 2017-18 Tigers.
CoBL: Coming off the successful years you had in 2015-16, you had a lot to replace, and you guys tried to bring in a lot of pieces; obviously, not all of those pieces worked out. What did you learn from that, and how did you approach this year differently?
Kehoe: It was an unbelievable run, a four-year run, that we sustained, and a lot of it was pieces that stayed together for a lot of years, but we also inserted some pieces along the way and detracted pieces along the way. We didn’t think that we made a mistake in recruiting with those guys, we knew it was not going to be easy; what we got out of Randy Bell and Dylan Hudson-Emery, two young men who have moved on, was a whole lot of scoring and ultimately their numbers were pretty gaudy at this level, but we realized our older group that we did, the pieces meshed and they fit and each individual was willing to do their job and that job specifically. There was no egos, and there were no chemistry issues. Chemistry is a very delicate thing, and last year our chemistry issues got in our way to a level that I have never experienced in my days of coaching college basketball.
CoBL: You mention all the success that you had, do you think you were rushing along the process of trying to sustain that success?
Kehoe: We did -- not so much rush them, we were up against a clock with some changes made internally at our university. And we went out and got the best players we could get. The mistake I made was -- and it’s on me, not anybody else -- I didn’t factor in the way I usually do, the pieces we were bringing in, the personalities we were bringing in. I just went out and I signed off on the best players, and ultimately as a staff we built this, not necessarily having the most talented guys, not necessarily having the best players, we built this on fit. We recruit much differently because we play the zone and because we shoot a lot of 3s, we built it differently. This time, we were over our head, quite frankly. We were replacing nine seniors that won almost 100 games in four years, that was program suicide. And there was no way we were going to match that. And I think what I did, because I’m not going to put it on our assistants, I looked at it and said if we can get two great players, we can figure out how to make this puzzle fit again, and fit again to the point where we were contending for the CACC, and that wasn’t realistic, and that was a mistake.
CoBL: So when you went out this year, what were you looking for in terms of the guys you wanted to bring in?
Kehoe: Maturity. Maturity. And the thing that got overlooked so much in the past was, we always had one or two guys that were just more mature than most players at this level. And we didn’t have that this year. We were too young, physically, and too young mentally. And at the Division II level, if you are both of those things, you’re going to struggle. So we went out and we made a conscious effort to get mature players both physically and mature mentally and I think we succeeded, adding the three JUCO players in Bryant, Burke and Thompson and I really believe some of our younger guys have grown up some. But in Jones and Power, we have two high school freshmen that are a little bit beyond their years. Maybe not physically beyond their years, but mentally they’re beyond their years, and they’re beyond coachable. And coachability, when you’re trying to build up a program and a roster, you better have guys who are coachable.
CoBL: Of the freshmen who are returning, who’s opened your eyes with the way they’ve come back?
Kehoe: Austin Chabot has put on 10 pounds of muscle, he is physically stronger, still has a lot of room to grow mentally when it comes to the game of basketball, and he’s working on that consistently. Maliq Sanders, I think, is going to have the opportunity to take a deep breath. Last year when Trai Greer tore his ACL, we didn’t really want to put the ball in Bell’s hands for 40 minutes, so we put Maliq Sanders in a position he probably wasn’t ready for. He’s a 6-5, 6-6 wing, and we told him, well, you can dribble, so you’re going to be the point guard. With Trai back, with Mikey Power here, with Mekhi Bryant here, we’ll get a better Maliq Sanders because he’ll be at a more natural position and more comfortable.
CoBL: Not to single out one of the three transfers over the other, but Bryant is someone who always seemed to have that maturity in high school, and I’m sure even moreso after two years in college. How much pressure do you put on him to come in and help set the tone in that regard?
Kehoe: I wouldn’t call it pressure, I would call it expectations, and expectations come with the territory. Mekhi is a young man that’s been around us for a long time, he was a 9th grader at Pennsbury coming to games at Holy Family. He had a successful two years down at Baltimore City, and coming back home I hope he takes advantage of the moment and the opportunity. He’s always been a guy who’s beyond his years, and we need him to step right into a situation that didn’t really have a leader, didn’t really have a voice, we need him to step into that role immediately. And he has thus far through the preseason and the first week or so of practice.
CoBL: In terms of team success this year, what will you be looking for in the early games to let you know you’re on the right track?
Kehoe: We’ve got to get back to our standards. The standard that, when the administrators at Holy Family gave me the keys to this program, there was a standard that we laid down as a staff. We’re going to play defense every night, we’re going to play the same defense every night and we’re going to make teams adjust to us and play our style. And we didn’t do that last year. In the years past, when we had lost a couple games in a row, when we sat down as a staff and as a team, we all realized we got away from our standard, and our standard is we all bring our hard hats, lunch pails on the defensive end of the floor, we play a defense that is unique but somewhat simplistic to people on the outside looking in, but it isn’t that simple. Last year I don’t think we grasped the concepts and the mindset that we needed defensively. This year, if we can play defense first, offense will figure itself out. And that’s the way we built this program, started building this program seven years ago. We got away from it. If we can get back to that, we’ll start moving toward the top of the league.
CoBL: From a league perspective, what are you looking at, how do you see things shaping up?
Kehoe: There’s so many unknowns, there’s been some turnover at some programs, so I think it goes back to, and unfortunately I’m not happy to say this, because I thought people would be saying this about us, but I think it’s back to Philly U, or whatever they’re called now, and Bloomfield. Both return a lot, both coaches are tremendous coaches and they’ve added some pieces, both transfer-wise and recruiting the high school level, that will help both teams. I think everybody’s going to have to try to catch those two.