Friday, February 21, 2014

Fordham/Saint Joseph's Preview

In addition to Phil Martelli's Saint Joseph's team, Fordham may also have its hands full with ubiquitous Hawk mascot as well at Hagan Arena tomorrow. (Photo courtesy of Saint Joseph's University)

Fordham has had a full week to prepare for their first of five final regular season games, and at 2-9 in Atlantic 10 play, the Rams find themselves fighting to avoid the conference's opening round play-in game as they enter Hagan Arena tomorrow afternoon to take on perennial league championship threat Saint Joseph's.

At 18-7, this year's Hawks team is enjoying its trademark stay in the top half of the conference, as head coach Phil Martelli is making up for a lost season in which his team was expected to dominate the A-10 a year ago, yet exited March with a buzzer-beating NIT loss at home to St. John's. This year, leading scorer Carl Jones is gone due to his graduation last May, but his absence has not caused the Hawks to miss a beat, with four double-figure scorers led by senior marksman Langston Galloway, as well as a starting five that is no stranger to extended minutes, with each averaging at least 32 minutes per game.

As a team, Saint Joseph's shoots 38 percent from three-point range, which could turn this game into a track meet or a one-sided affair in the opening minutes, depending on how disciplined Fordham starts the game. In addition, the revenge factor will be in play in the form of senior forward Halil Kanacevic, the Staten Islander who leads the team in assists and rebounds, and played for Tom Pecora as a freshman at Hofstra before the coach's departure to Rose Hill, joining UMass' Chaz Williams as Hofstra expatriates in the Atlantic 10.

Martelli's Hawks have a lot to lose here with a misstep, most notably their status on the NCAA Tournament bubble, something Saint Joseph's radio color analyst Joe Lunardi (yes, THE Joe Lunardi) will no doubt expound upon before the game, but to get to know the Philadelphia natives further, we turn it over to James Hill; one of the fine members of the PhilaHoops.com outfit that friend of the site Aaron Bracy does an exceptional job of helping manage, and this is what James had to share about the team who, just a decade ago, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Delonte West and all-time leading scorer Jameer Nelson:

Jaden Daly: This season's Hawks are playing more like the team picked to win the Atlantic 10 than last year's team, which was picked first in the preseason poll, was. What has been the biggest change for Phil Martelli this season, and how much more has the group improved as a whole?

James Hill: I think this team’s chemistry is far ahead of what it was a season ago. Martelli has been talking about it all year – the guys on the team care about each other and want to do whatever they can to win. The team has taken on the personality of its three senior starters – Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic, and Ronald Roberts – and it’s been for the best. I know that’s a vague answer, but comparing last year’s team to this year’s team, it’s the one thing that stands out the most.

JD: Saint Joseph's shoots 38 percent from three-point range as a team, and Chris Wilson has been a better complement to Langston Galloway than some may have expected. With Fordham's four-guard lineup, how much more will outside shooting be part of Martelli's game plan?

JH: Outside shooting will always be a part of the game plan for the Hawks – they take nearly 19 of them a game, but I would imagine the St. Joe’s will start the game by getting the ball into Ronald Roberts or Halil Kanacevic in the post in order to play an inside-out game. That’s been their recipe all year. Once the defense starts collapsing, Galloway, Wilson, and DeAndre Bembry will spot up along the outside, but I definitely don’t expect the Hawks to change the inside-out approach because of the four-guard look they will see.
That doesn’t mean they won’t change personnel. You might see a few more minutes for guys like Isaiah Miles or Daryus Quarles, two bigger guards, in order to better match up defensively, but count on the ball going into the post early and often.

JD: Going back to Wilson if we may, how seamless has the transition been for him in replacing Carl Jones?

JH: The Hawks definitely have a different look this year, as much of their offense went through Carl Jones and CJ Aiken last season, but Wilson did start in all but three of his games played last season and played 30 minutes a game. So he had plenty of experience running the team coming into this season. He does have a different role at the point than Jones had. Jones was much more of a “me-first” scorer, and made sure to get his shots. Wilson, on the other hand, is much more passive, and gets his shots within the flow of the offense. I think the offense flows a lot better this season with Wilson running the show and the introduction of DeAndre Bembry. The team is much more balanced and unselfish this season, with all five starters averaging at least 9 points.

JD: For those who haven't seen DeAndre Bembry, what can we expect, and how much more of an impact does he make in the departments that don't show up in the box score?

JH: DeAndre Bembry has been a lot of fun to watch this season. He is the Hawks’ most versatile player. He can shoot, handle the ball very well, defend, and he seems to be the only guy who can take his man to the rim off the bounce. The only issue is, as a freshman, he has yet to find consistency. He could go for 18 one night and four points the next, but, despite his somewhat inconsistent production, he does have a maturity level you don’t typically find in freshmen. DeAndre’s impact on the defensive end is definitely something that doesn’t show up in the box score – at least not in terms of steals, blocks, etc. Martelli usually assigns Bembry to check the opposing team’s best perimeter player, and he’s been able to do that very well this season. Just like on the offensive end, there have been some lapses, (see Tyreek Duren’s eight-point spurt at the beginning of the La Salle game) but he’s drawn that top defensive assignment every game since the opener and has done a good job.

JD: Considering the Hawks have no layups in their final four games, how crucial is this game in terms of sustaining momentum going into the Atlantic 10 tournament?

JH: This game is huge for Saint Joseph’s. They cannot afford a loss on their home floor to a team ranked 187 in the RPI. And, as you said, the rest of the schedule does not do them any favors with Dayton, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, and city rival La Salle still to play. If they lose to Fordham in Philly, their already small margin for error probably evaporates. They need this one – more for the damage a loss would bring than for the benefit a win would provide.

JD: On that note, where do you ultimately see Saint Joseph's finishing, and how much more work is needed to secure an at-large berth?

JH: To secure an at-large berth, I think the Hawks can afford one more regular season loss – preferably at George Washington. I suppose if they lost at St. Bonaventure but then won at George Washington, they’d still be ok as well – but the Bonnie loss would look much worse to those around the country, even though those around the A-10 know how hard it is to win in Olean. After all that, a win or two in the conference tournament would certainly help.

In my opinion, the Hawks will make the Tournament. Most projections have them in as of now, and I think the remaining schedule offers enough opportunities to bolster their position within the field. Saint Joseph’s has won 14 of its last 17 and has been one of the better teams in the conference since Atlantic 10 play started. This senior-heavy squad has been talking about the Big Dance since October. Now that it’s within their grasp, I don’t imagine them stepping off the pedal.

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