Who: Saint Joseph’s (15-6, 5-2 A-10) vs. No. 13 Saint Louis (20-2, 7-0 A-10)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Hagan Arena
TV / Radio: The Comcast Network / CBS Sports Radio 610
By JAMES HILL
According to Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, when teams score against Saint Louis, they “score by accident.”
When the Billikens arrive Wednesday night for a showdown at Hagan Arena, they will bring with them a team defense that is the Atlantic 10’s stingiest and the 8th best in the nation. To knock off their second ranked team in a row, the Hawks will need to accidentally find the bottom of the net as early and as often as possible.
With a pair of tough wins last week – on the road against Dayton and at home against 21st-ranked UMass – the Hawks thrust themselves into the thick of the conference race and placed themselves in prime position to contend for a spot in the Big Dance.
Senior Halil Kanacevic shined in the two big wins, earning Big Five Co-Player of the Week honors. The forward averaged 13 points, 8.5 rebounds, and four assists in the two games, leading his team with 18 points against UMass in an off-night for leading scorer Langston Galloway.
“Halil does everything for us,” Martelli explained. “He runs our offense and really runs our defense. He’s full of suggestions for me as the game goes on. He helps the referees. He does a little bit of everything during games.”
Kanacevic, Galloway, and the rest of the Hawks need to be on their game Wednesday night, as Saint Louis has allowed only 59 points per game on the season. The Billikens have won 14 games in a row – including seven straight to start Atlantic 10 play. The Bills sit two games ahead of the fourth-place Hawks in the conference standings.
“I have a lot of concerns,” Martelli admitted. “I have concerns over whether or not we can dribble the ball. I am concerned about whether we can pass the ball and whether we can shoot the ball against these guys.
“But at the other end of the floor, Jordair Jett’s strength and speed, Dwayne Evans’ power at the rim, and Rob Loe’s game – so we have to have some answer.”
Meanwhile the Saint Joseph’s offense has been extraordinarily inconsistent since the calendar flipped to 2014. Following a four-game stretch in mid-January in which the Hawks hit almost 12 three-pointers per game, the team went ice cold against Rhode Island and Richmond before breaking that slump in the second half against Dayton.
Inconsistency surfaced again Saturday against UMass. Saint Joseph’s shot 45 percent from the floor in building a 16-point lead at halftime. But an ice-cold second half at 36 percent allowed the Minutemen to tie the game in the closing minutes. Five free throws down in the final 40 seconds allowed the Hawks to escape with a win.
To have any chance at a win over the Billikens, Saint Joseph’s must find a way to be consistent.
“I’ve literally been up since 5 a.m. trying to find out a way,” the coach said. “The only thing I can compare it to in my time is when we played Texas Tech (in 2003-04) when Bobby Knight was the coach. I remember watching the film and saying, ‘This is like watching a defensive clinic.’ Saint Louis is exactly the same thing.”
Though overshadowed by the defense, the Billiken offense can hold its own as well. Saint Louis, who routinely goes nine deep, has five players who score 9 or more points per game led by Evans’ 14.9 points per game and Jett’s 12.2. That balanced attack scores 71.5 points per game, which is plenty when coupled with the team’s defense.
“This is a top 10 team,” said Martelli. “They’re 20-2 – what more do they have to do? They lost to Wisconsin when they were undefeated and they lost to Wichita State in a one-possession game. They’ve won 14 straight their way.”
Scouting Saint Joseph’s: Saint Joseph’s is the top three-point shooting team in the conference. Langston Galloway, DeAndre Bembry, and Papa Ndao all shoot better than 40 percent from range…. Last season, Ronald Roberts scored 25 points for the Hawks in a 70-53 loss in Saint Louis…. The Hawks have won six of their last seven and 11 of their last 13 games…. Halil Kanacevic shared his Big Five Co-Player of the Week honor with James Bell of Villanova…. Galloway has averaged 11.8 points per game over the last four games, dropping his team-high scoring average to 16.7 points per game.
Scouting Saint Louis: Saint Louis leads the all-time series 7-2 and have won seven in a row against the Hawks…. SLU’s 20-2 mark is the best in school history. Their seven-game winning streak to begin conference play is their best since 1959. The 14 straight wins ties a school record…. In their last game, the Billikens surrendered their highest opponent point total this season. George Mason managed 81 points against Saint Louis, though it took them an overtime period to reach that mark…. Saint Louis is first in the Atlantic 10 in defensive field goal percentage (39 percent) and second in field goal percentage defense (28 percent).
Sound Off: What must the Hawks do to crack the Billiken defense?
James Hill covers Saint Joseph’s basketball for Philahoops. Reach him at [email protected], on Twitter @jrhill17, or leave a comment below.