Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
There’s only one word for Saint Joseph’s senior class: special.
In four years, St. Joe’s went from a team that won just 11 games to one that won 24. They went from a program so bad that many Hawk faithful were calling for longtime head coach Phil Martelli’s job to one that won an Atlantic 10 title for the first time in 17 years.
And it would have never happened were it not for a trio of Hawks: Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts, Jr.
“They’ve meant everything,” junior point guard Chris Wilson said of his elder teammates. “They’ve done so much just for the culture of the program and it’s really more than words can explain.”
The group’s collective careers came to an end on Thursday night, as Shabazz Napier and Connecticut got by SJU in overtime, 89-81, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Galloway, a sharpshooting guard from Baton Rouge, La., had 25 points to finish in second on SJU’s career scoring list with 1,991 points, trailing only Hawk great and current NBA player Jameer Nelson.
Roberts, an athletic freak of a power forward from Bayonne, N.J., had his final collegiate double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Kanacevic, a 6-foot-8 “point forward” who led the Hawks in both rebounding and assists, would finish with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists before fouling out a minute into overtime.
Their collective departure leaves a gaping hole in Saint Joseph’s production going into next year: a collective 60 percent of the team’s scoring (42.6 ppg), 57 percent of its rebounding (20.5 rpg) and about half of its minutes, as the trio combined to play over 100 minutes per game as seniors.
But more than that, it’ll miss their leadership. For the Hawks’ improvement from an 11-22 season back in 2010-11 to a 24-9 this year was not just because of the talent the trio brought to the table.
“They had that rough freshman year and they battled through, they really wanted to change the program around,” Wilson said. “Obviously on the court they’re great, but off the court is really where it just makes such a big difference to have them.
“We really focused on spending time together off the court, we went out of our way to make sure we worked on our relationships, not just on the court but also off the court. We communicated and we pushed each other every day.”
Galloway and Roberts arrived on campus together as freshmen in the fall of 2010, along with Daryus Quarles, a 6-6 wing out of Paulsboro (N.J.), and C.J. Aiken, a 6-9 forward out of Plymouth-Whitemarsh.
They were joined by Kanacevic, who’d just finished up his freshman year at Hofstra before electing to transfer down to Hawk Hill.
Aiken would declare early for the NBA Draft, leaving Saint Joseph’s with a five-man senior class this year, including walk-on Colin Kelly. And for those who stayed to finish out their careers, they couldn’t have made their head coach more proud.
“What I asked them to do is to be better men than they were as high school kids,” SJU coach Phil Martelli said. “Across the board, that’s a yes. I want them to be on the brink of college graduation. They’ve done that. And every one of them is a better player. So mission accomplished for those five guys.
“And for the way that they represented Saint Joseph’s, you’re talking about three of them are going to go into the Basketball Hall of Fame sometime at St. Joe’s, and that’s quite an honor.”
For three years, their potential legacy went from negative to positive and then just to raw uncertainty, after a disappointing 2012-13 season that saw them named A-10 preseason favorites before struggling to an 18-14 record and second consecutive NIT first-round exit.
That only made this year’s success that much sweeter.
“They came in the same time I come in, I’m sitting out, they come in there as freshmen and have a losing season, and that’s a struggle,” Kanacevic said. “The next year you get a little better, the third year it’s a little up-and-down and you just keep fighting, you keep building and you stick together. Guys leave at one point, people graduate and some people leave, they don’t stick with the team.
“This fourth year, you have a team full of people that have been through battles, we’ve been through tough times, we just fought, we were resilient all year. I think that makes it great, because you’ve gotten to see everything, you’ve gotten to deal with everything, and that’s pretty much why I think it was a great experience.
“I think I lived the college life,” he added. “I think I experienced college as great as anybody that I’ve been. I’ve been up and I’ve been down, so I’ve gotten everything out of the college experience, from Hofstra to here. I can’t really complain about losing tonight.”
Ultimately, what the seniors have left Saint Joseph’s with is something crucial to any program in Division I basketball, especially in the Atlantic 10 Conference–momentum.
Martelli and staff are bringing in a talented four-man freshman class this fall, with a number of players who could be just as important to SJU basketball over the next four years as this class was to the prior four. Shavar Newkirk (PG/Cardinal Hayes, N.Y.), James Demery (SF/Northside Christian Academy, N.C.), Markell Lodge (PF/Christian Faith Academy, N.C.) and Obi Romeo (PF/Greenbrier East HS, W.Va.) bring a lot of athleticism and versatility to the Hawks’ roster, and they’ll all have a chance to compete for minutes immediately on Hawk Hill.
And of course there’s still plenty of talent left on the roster. Wilson, the team’s starting point guard, will be back for his senior season. He’ll have to lead a group of mostly-inexperienced Hawks, though he’ll have plenty of help from high-scoring wing DeAndre Bembry, who averaged 12.0 ppg as a freshman this season.
“As soon as we came in here, me and [sophomore forward] Isaiah [Miles] looked at each other and said we want to be back,” Wilson said. “Most of the guys in here are going to be back, and so just to know what this felt like, obviously just to have this feeling is just going to make us that much more hungry next year because we know how it felt.”
Thanks to the seniors, they do. Thanks to the seniors, the Hawks are back.