MBB PREVIEW: Loaded With Experience and Talent, Billikens, Hawks Look Like Contenders
In the days leading up to the start of the 2018-19 men's basketball season, the Atlantic10.com has profiled two teams a day, leading up to tip-off on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Today's previews, the final two, written by Patrick Stevens, includes Saint Joseph's and Saint Louis.
It seems like Travis Ford has a considerably new team at Saint Louis --- again.
That was obviously true when he fielded his first Billikens team two seasons ago. It was true again last year when Saint Louis got several key transfers eligible.
And now, with a mix of freshmen and graduate transfers and even a key cog coming off an injury, it feels like Saint Louis is much different than before.
This time, though, there are serious expectations for a team picked to win the Atlantic 10.
Little wonder Ford sees the presence of tested returnees --- Javon Bess, D.J. Foreman, Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin --- as a source of comfort.
“Thank goodness, right now, because dealing with eight new guys --- I’d forgotten what that was like,” Ford said. “Someone said you just took over [a new team] and I said ‘Yeah, but nothing was expected.’ I wasn’t thinking about whether we were good or bad. We were just out there. Right now, you’re like ‘All right, we’re supposed to be pretty good.’”
It was enough to make Ford fret about a slow start to practice, though the Billikens did eventually cruise to a pair of exhibition victories before the start of the season.
“We don’t have a lot of returning guys,” Ford said. “We have four that are returning from last year’s team. That’s it. It’s not like you have six guys who are teaching four or five guys.”
A look at the Billikens:
Coach: Travis Ford, third season at Saint Louis, 29-37 at Saint Louis and 374-294 in 22 seasons overall
Last year: The Billikens went 17-16 overall and 9-9 in the Atlantic 10, tying for fifth in the conference. Saint Louis landed the No. 6 seed in the A-10 Championship, defeating George Washington before falling to eventual NCAA at-large selection St. Bonaventure in the quarterfinals to conclude the year.
They’ll miss: The Billikens used only nine players last season, with all but one earning at least one start. Davell Roby (11.5 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game) led the team in made 3-pointers with 56, while Jalen Johnson (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) ranked second in the category with 52. Both are gone, so the Billikens will have new faces as their top outside threats.
Impact returners: Saint Louis has three players among the 15 who earned preseason All-Atlantic 10 honors. That group include 6-6 senior Javon Bess (13.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 6-3 sophomore Jordan Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg), a pair of second team selections, and 6-7 sophomore Hasahn French (9.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg), a third team pick who made the league’s all-rookie team last season.
Newbies of note: Ford signed a five-man freshman class that figures to be the foundation of the program moving forward.
“All of them have given me something that I look at and say they could all be impact players in this league,” Ford said. “It’s interesting. All five are completely different players. All five could be a starting lineup.”
In particular, 6-9 forward Carte’Are Gordon and 6-3 guard Fred Thatch Jr. figure to have the most immediate impact.
“They’re physically ready to play, and competitively, too,” Ford said.
Reasons to be optimistic:
Make no mistake, the Billikens’ roster is gifted.
Bess and Goodwin averaged double figures in scoring last season. D.J. Foreman, a 6-8 senior, shot 62.6 percent from the floor and understands his role in Saint Louis’ plans. French notched nearly three offensive rebounds a game as a freshman.
That’s a lot to like, as is getting back 6-9 sophomore Elliott Welmer, who has missed two of his first three seasons on campus due to injury.
“Those guys get it, and Elliott Welmer gets it as well,” Ford said. “I did change a lot from his first year to last year from what we were running, but he gets it. He gets my mentality. He gets what we need to get done.”
That’s a good group of five, but they’ll need help. Graduate transfer Tramaine Isabell Jr., a 6-1 Drexel transfer who began his career at Missouri, looks like he’ll play heavy minutes. And Gordon and Thatch lead a freshman class that will need to chip in as well this season.
“These guys won 17 games last year. They could win 17 games right now,” Ford said of his returnees. “If we want to get into the 20s and maybe win the league, it’ll be up to other guys.”
X factor: Graduate transfers Isabell and Dion Wiley could play large roles. The 6-1 Isabell averaged 21.0 points and 7.5 rebounds last season at Drexel, while the 6-4 Wiley collected 5.8 points per game as a part-time starter at Maryland.
Both suffered from injuries early in practice but have healed up and played in the Billikens’ two exhibition victories.
Circle the date(s): A home game against Butler (Dec. 1) is the sort of thing that will grab attention immediately. But the Billikens also visit Seton Hall (Nov. 17) and Houston (Dec. 16), play host to N.C. Central (Dec. 19) and meet Florida State in Sunrise, Fla. (Dec. 22). All of those teams played in the NCAA tournament last season.
Bottom line: How do the freshmen fit in? And the graduate transfers? Ford is mixing a lot of talent together, arguably more than any other team in the A-10 this season. If it fits together splendidly, Saint Louis will be in line for its first NCAA trip since 2014. But it’s more likely there will be ups and downs in the season’s first few months before this team approaches its potential.
It’s always dangerous to assume there will be any carry-over from one season to another. Players come and go. It’s a new year.
Saint Joseph’s certainly hopes its late surge last season imbued some qualities on this year’s team.
Sure, the Hawks’ top two scorers are gone. But they also get two all-conference caliber players back from injuries, and there are still plenty of contributors from a team that won seven of its last nine games --- with two losses to George Mason on buzzer beaters and another to regular season Atlantic 10 champion Rhode Island by three points in the league tournament.
“The year before when we had a lot of injuries, we felt sorry for ourselves at the end of the season,” coach Phil Martelli said. “Last year, they stiffened their necks and they went out. I think it’s a cliché to say all teams compete. Those guys hated losing at the end of the year and if there can be a carry-over, it kind of gets combined with the guys who were injured.”
Four players who logged at least 20 starts are back for the Hawks. Throw in some tested options coming off injuries and two more newcomers likely to contribute, and Saint Joseph’s could have one of the conference’s most imposing rotations.
A look at the Hawks:
Coach: Phil Martelli, 24th season at Saint Joseph’s, 430-309 overall and at Saint Joseph’s
Last year: The Hawks battled injuries for much of the season but still went 16-16 overall and finished in sole possession of fourth place in the Atlantic 10 at 10-8. Saint Joseph’s reached the A-10 semifinals before bowing out 90-87 against regular season champion Rhode Island to conclude its season.
They’ll miss: Both of the starters who have departed from Hawk Hill were ultra-productive last season --- both based on talent and out of necessity for a short-handed team.
Shavar Newkirk averaged 17.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists to earn second team all-conference honors, while James Demery (16.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) was a major piece as well.
Impact returners: The Hawks’ best players this year will be guys who combined to play in one game last year.
Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, a 6-0 guard, played in one game in 2017-18 but averaged 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists two seasons ago. And 6-7 sophomore Charlie Brown (12.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg) was a member of the A-10’s All-Rookie Team two years ago.
Newbies of note: The Hawks have two new scholarship players eligible to play this season. Martelli plucked 5-10 point guard Jared Bynum out of the D.C. area.
“Wait till you get a load of this kid,” Martelli said. “As a freshman, he’s one of those guys. He’s like a 30-year-old playing.”
Also in the mix is South Florida graduate transfer Troy Holston, a 6-4 guard who averaged 9.7 points two seasons ago before undergoing meniscus surgery two years ago. Holston has two years of eligibility remaining.
Reasons to be optimistic:
So much of the Hawks’ hopes are pinned on guys who couldn’t contribute last season.
That starts with Kimble, who earned All-Rookie A-10 honors in 2015-16 and played on the program’s last NCAA tournament team.
“He’s a three-year captain,” Martelli said. “His work from the summer has been extraordinary. His fitness level is very, very high. He’s destined to have a really good year, and we’re going to be on his back.”
If Brown can re-emerge as a strong second option this season, it would make the Hawks even more dynamic. But Martelli has one notable concern about the sophomore as the season gets underway.
“He’s going to try to play all 32 games that he missed last year against Old Dominion on Nov. 9,” Martelli said. “It’s not going to work. I’m chipping away at that and chipping away. He has to show up for that Old Dominion game and that’s the first game of his sophomore year, not the 33rd game of the season he missed.”
X factor: After a strong freshman season, 6-9 forward Taylor Funk (11.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) could make an even greater impact beyond his exceptional outside shooting.
“Taylor has to play more off the bounce ---  of his shots last year were threes,” Martelli said. “He has to become a more confident defender. Often times, if you read his eyes, when he’s looking at the ball and that’s the man he’s guarding, he’s already somewhat defeated. We can’t have that. But he starts with a skill that’s a professional skill. He has range and a stroke that is just beautiful.”
Circle the date(s): Saint Joseph’s will face a pair of Final Four teams from last season --- and in consecutive games, albeit with a break for final exams wedged in between. The Hawks visit defending national champion Villanova on Dec. 8. Two weeks later, Loyola Chicago comes to Philadelphia to meet Saint Joseph’s at the Palestra.
Bottom line: The Hawks went from 4-7 in the league to sole possession of fourth place last season. The A-10 should be deeper this year, but so is Saint Joseph’s. Strong returns from Kimble and Brown would go a long way to getting the Hawks back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.