Bob Ford: Youthful Hawks get a confidence-builder

Posted: January 26, 2012

Phil Martelli had individual meetings with each player on the St. Joseph's team earlier this week. These were academic meetings for the most part, but the coach also used them to take the temperature of his young team, and what he heard worried him a little.

"They were honest and open about what goes on behind closed doors with them, about what they think other guys are thinking," Martelli said. "No one mentioned any names, but they all felt a little, 'Are we good enough?' They were trying to decide if we were going to be good enough."

A stretch of losing, and pretty ugly losing, will do that to a very young team. After getting off to an uplifting start to the schedule, the Hawks had lost three straight and five of seven games. The season teeters on an edge at those times, and even the coach couldn't say for certain which way it would fall.

So, it's not like Wednesday's 77-63 win over first-place Dayton in Hagan Arena was important or anything. Time will tell if it leads to more, but for this one night the players had their belief restored.

"What was happening to us was we were acting our age," Martelli said. "I'm not one to stand up here and shout and say, 'Don't you get it? We're the fourth-youngest team in America.' That doesn't mean anything . . . but at some point the individual frailties some of these guys have is because of their age."

Martelli is trying to age them in a hurry, and that's a tough job. In his regular seven-man rotation, he has a junior, five sophomores, and a freshman. The team has its best potential with a big lineup, but that presents the challenge of taking care of the ball, maintaining a quick pace and staying out of foul trouble . . . all of which is tough with three legitimate frontcourt players.

What to do? The Hawks play significantly more zone defense than in the past. They run as much as possible because their half-court offense can be a touch mechanical. And they try to limit turnovers as if that's a religion. On some nights, you can see the magic formula of the plan. Wednesday night against Dayton was one of them.

It was far from a perfect game. St. Joe's went nearly 11 minutes without a field goal in the first half and was fortunate to only trail by five points at halftime.

In the second half, the talented offense exploded for 50 points, led by 22 in that half (and 27 overall) for sixth-man Ronald Roberts, who would score the final 15 points of the game for the Hawks.

"We just came out flat in the last three games and we wanted to come out today with a chip on our shoulder," Roberts said. "Confidence is very important to us. It allows you to play hard."

Whatever tentativeness had seeped into their games while losing to Massachusetts, Xavier, and Penn disappeared in the second half against Dayton.

"We got the bounce back in our step. We haven't had the bounce," Martelli said.

The four big men in the rotation - Roberts, along with starters C.J. Aiken, Halil Kanacevic, and Daryus Quarles - combined for 59 points and averaged 23 minutes on the floor. When the Hawks play big, they can limit penetration and force the opponent into trying its luck from the outside. That doesn't always work, but it is the way to play basketball.

They do need to rebound better, however. Against Dayton, the Hawks got away with grabbing just five offensive rebounds while allowing the Flyers to get 17 offensive rebounds. (Dayton had 17 more misses from the field than St. Joe's, but that's still too many.)

"We have to commit more to being a real good rebounding team, particularly with that lineup," Martelli said.

It was a mostly quiet night for the guard trio of Carl Jones, Langston Galloway, and Chris Wilson. Dayton's guards did a good job of extending defense to the perimeter and St. Joe's looked elsewhere for its scoring. This time, there was plenty to find.

"This was big for the players," Martelli said. "To be honest, we haven't played basketball for a month. And one of the keys is to be ourselves, to play with that energy, and we haven't had that . . . we couldn't break through."

The energy now has to carry over to Saturday at the Liacouras Center against Temple. And then to games against Richmond and La Salle and St. Louis and on and on into the grinder that is a conference schedule.

Young teams, especially really young teams, don't get through that unscathed. The Hawks already have some scars this season. Wednesday night, when it really mattered, they handed out a few to someone else instead, and they all agreed that felt a lot better.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford.

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