Who: Saint Joseph’s (0-0) at Vermont (0-0)
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Patrick Gymnasium, Burlington, VT
TV/Radio: None / CBS Sports Radio 610 (WIP – AM)
By JAMES HILL
For a Saint Joseph’s team that has set its sights on an NCAA Tournament berth, the schedule has provided an early opportunity: a season-opening road game at America East Conference favorite Vermont. The Hawks open their season Saturday night against the Catamounts, who return six of their top seven scorers from a 21-win team a season ago.
“With this Vermont team being older – six of their first seven guys are seniors, and two years ago these exact guys played North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament – there’s not going to be any kind of intimidating factor,” Saint Joseph’s Head Coach Phil Martelli said. “I think on the road, you’re really relying on each other. I’m interested because this group has really done a good job of relying on each other through the summer and thirty days of practice.”
The Hawks, picked to finish fifth by the coaches in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, will rely on their senior trio of captains to lead the way in a hostile environment. Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic, and Ron Roberts will start alongside junior guard Chris Wilson to form a veteran punch of their own. But a fresh face may end up being the difference-maker for the Hawks on Saturday and throughout the season.
This past week, Martelli named freshman DeAndre Bembry as his fifth starter. Bembry, a 6-foot-6 true freshman from the Patrick School in New Jersey, was a New Jersey All-State First Team selection and Union County Player of the Year last season.
“He earned this spot,” Martelli said. “Nobody gave him this spot… He’s older in the way he thinks the game of basketball; he’s older in the way he plays the game of basketball. He fits nicely with this group. They give him tremendous respect because they respect his game.”
Throwing a freshman into a group of veterans in this way might throw off chemistry. But Hawks players insist it’s just the opposite.
“We’ve got a good make-up on this team,” Kanacevic said, echoing the feelings of teammates. “We’ve got some new pieces added and are playing a little differently. It’ll be a challenge but we’re ready.”
Bembry will have to prove his coach right at the outset, as Martelli revealed that he will be given a primary defensive responsibility against the Catamounts. The real challenge in this game, however, will be on the offensive end for the Hawks.
Vermont’s defense ranked 28th in the country a season ago, surrendering only 59 points per game. On the strength of that defense, the Catamounts earned 21 wins by averaging only 64 points per game. For a Hawks team that wants to push the pace of play this season, dictating tempo will be crucial to the outcome of this game.
“If it’s a mud-wrestling game where we’re trying to get to 60, we’re going to be in trouble,” Martelli said. “We’ve got to get things free-flowing a little bit, and we have to try to get to our target point, which is 71 or 72 points per game.”
The key to this approach, Martelli explained, is to have a new attacking mindset. This is especially important now that the Hawks can no longer rely on graduated guard Carl Jones. The Hawks will need to find some way to account for Jones’ production – as he had led the team in scoring each of the past three seasons.
“One of the things we have to do is play faster,” Martelli explained. “We have to be quicker up and down the floor. We have to be quicker in making decisions. We have to be a little bit more balanced, and we have to attack earlier in the shot clock.”
Even if that all sounds like a tall order, it’s not bothering Galloway, the Hawks’ leading returning scorer.
“We just have to go out there for our first game and have fun, enjoy ourselves,” the guard calmly said. “We just need to execute what we’ve been working on all summer and preseason.”
Scouting Saint Joseph’s: The Hawks are 7-1 in their last eight season openers. The one loss was to Western Kentucky in 2010…. Seniors Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic, and Ron Roberts were named co-captains this week…. The Hawks lead the all-time series against Vermont 3-2…. Head Coach Phil Martelli enters his 19th season with the Hawks. His 338 career victories place him second behind Temple’s John Chaney for the most all-time in the Atlantic 10…. The Hawks will have a major piece to replace at each end of the floor. Carl Jones (14.7 ppg last year), who graduated in May, had led the team in scoring in each of the three previous seasons. Meanwhile, CJ Aiken, who left to play professionally, was among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots with 2.67 per game last year.
Scouting Vermont: Vermont’s top three returning scorers from last season – Clancy Rugg (11.4 ppg), Luke Apfeld (10.7), and Sandro Carissimo (10.0) – all return to lead the Catamounts…. Vermont finished 21-12 a year ago, losing to Santa Clara 77-67 in the first round of the CBI Tournament…. Senior forward Brian Voelkel was a first-team all-conference selection a season ago and was named to the pre-season all-conference team this year. He ranks 12th on the America East Conference’s all-time rebound list with 902…. Vermont was selected by the coaches to win the America East conference. They edged out Stony Brook for the top spot.
Sound Off: Can the Hawks start their campaign with a road win?