Kanacevic a unique leader for St. Joseph's

Halil Kanacevic has been asked to sacrifice his game this season, coach Phila Martelli said.
Halil Kanacevic has been asked to sacrifice his game this season, coach Phila Martelli said. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 17, 2014

NEW YORK - Before his news conference after the Atlantic Ten semifinals, St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt scanned the most relevant line in the box score.

Schmidt had been an eyewitness as Halil Kanacevic put up all those numbers, and he knew the final score - St. Joseph's 67, St. Bonaventure 48 - but Schmidt tortured himself a little more.

"He only had one block?" the Bonnies coach said under his breath.

After St. Bonaventure had taken an early lead, Kanacevic, a Staten Island guy, put the team on his back: 26 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 three-pointers. The Hawks are playing for the A-10 title Sunday at the Barclays Center because Kanacevic had all the tangibles covered, as well as his usual intangibles.

Announcer Stan Van Gundy, who knows a couple of things about basketball, thinks Kanacevic may be the MVP of the A-10. The former Orlando Magic coach said it before Saturday's game.

Afterward, Hawks coach Phil Martelli was asked about Kanacevic's unique skill set. He nodded.

"And personality, and vocabulary," Martelli added.

One big point Martelli wanted to make was that Kanacevic has been asked to sacrifice, to get off the low post. It isn't exactly accurate to call Kanacevic a point forward, since he finds his way to the low post often enough, but he is as good a passing forward as you'll find.

It's obvious how much fun he is having. Asked about St. Joseph's being under the radar this season, Kanacevic said: "Do you think we're underrated? We don't care. No offense. I mean, no offense, but we don't listen to that stuff. We just keep our head straight. . . . [Ranked] one, a hundred - I don't think anybody in that locker room would care."

The 23-9 Hawks now know they will hear their name when NCAA bids are announced Sunday. Of the turnaround after losing at Temple and getting slaughtered at home by Villanova - "by about 111," Martelli said - the coach always points to the Drexel game that came next, how Kanacevic took over that one, too, getting the Hawks back on track.

So if all you know about Kanacevic is that he's a kid who made an obscene gesture last year at Villanova and often had something to say to the refs, you haven't caught many St. Joe's games this season.

Kanacevic's mouth is still moving, but the words mostly head in a different direction.

"He's one of the best bench players that I've ever had," Martelli said Friday. "If you could watch him, like if you could take your eyes off the action and put a camera just on him, he's talking every play, he's encouraging on every play. He's offering suggestions."

The common description is "high basketball IQ."

"Rough around the edges, but he has a really wonderful basketball IQ, and he is a tremendous, tremendous teammate," Martelli said. "This is a team full of great teammates; he might be at the top of the list, though."

Outside the locker room stood Staten Island Advance columnist Cormac Gordon, who also happened to be an assistant coach for Kanacevic's high school team.

"When he was in high school, three coaches used to sit on the bench . . . between the three, they'd been around basketball for about a hundred years," Gordon said.

"We'd be debating what sort of offense to run because the defense had just changed. And we'd talk real quick, 'Well, let's run our play "green" against this.' And we'd look up, and Halil was on the court yelling, 'Green, green,' " before we ever said anything. And that was when he was 15 years old. In that way, he's a very unique kid."

Sometimes it takes a game like this, with eye-popping numbers like Kanacevic produced, to remember how unusual he is. Staying out of foul trouble may be his most important task, since the Hawks struggle to function without him.

"I'm fascinated by him as a person," Martelli said. "When it was ugly for about 14 or 15 minutes, he kept saying, 'Listen, it's all right.' . . . I didn't have to say it. He said it to them, and because he says so much, they all listen to him."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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