So now we know.
There was no quick fix to be had on Hawk Hill, no replacing the head coach to get started on the upswing in men’s basketball at St. Joseph’s University. Anyone in the administration and in the fan base who thought such a thing … they can’t anymore.
A 1-12 record in Year 2 of the Billy Lange era, 0-7 in the Atlantic 10, only a hastily scheduled win over Albany for the win column in 2020-21 — all that demands notice. Early on, the vicious schedule looked like the culprit. But 0-7 in the league is a different equation.
One person who wasn’t delusional about any of it was Billy Lange. Every conversation with the man in charge since the day he was hired in 2019 has exuded realism, not magical thinking. Lange got a long-term deal for a reason.
Maybe from the outside we did allow ourselves to be a bit deluded at the start of this season when the Hawks were a free throw away from knocking off Auburn in the season opener, then got out ahead of Kansas the next day before the Jayhawks took over. (That team hasn’t been fully together since, by the way, not even for a practice.)
Early on, you saw other signs of hope, of attractive ball movement, of being on the right track, not toward 1-12. Let’s argue forcefully that nobody should be picking up pitchforks in 2020-21. (Why? For starters, replacing Auburn, Kansas and Tennessee with the originally intended Maine, Binghamton and Mount St. Mary’s. Don’t try that at home.) This is a year of survival, across the landscape. A few free throws here and a better whistle at the end there, the numbers look different. Still, new coaches always come in preaching hope, and it’s a tougher sermon for Lange right now.
Let’s state some facts. If Phil Martelli were still the coach, St. Joe’s would be better right now. Jared Bynum, starting point guard at Providence, would be at SJU. Hakim Hart, now starting at Maryland, would surely have kept his commitment to SJU. Bones Hyland, averaging 18.6 points a game at VCU, had planned to be at SJU. Jameer Nelson Jr. was joining the party.
That’s not to suggest that even with all those guys Hawks would have been at the top of the A-10, just that they wouldn’t be at the bottom of it.
It’s also not to suggest that folks weren’t allowed to want change after the Martelli years had hit a stagnant point, three seasons amounting to 41-55. These jobs pay a lot of money. Expectations come with it.
Let’s absolutely suggest, however, that no semblance of a transition is a price now being paid. That goes way above athletic department leadership, to the very top of the house.
The current group has shown signs of promise. Jordan Hall was a great addition, now being tested by fire. Taylor Funk has been playing terrific basketball. The chief Hawk weakness, an inability to protect the rim, was a weakness in the last Martelli years, too. It’s not like Lange, in charge of the Sixers defense just prior to taking the SJU job, doesn’t know what he wants to see out there.
This group just has to pick its flavor of poison at the defensive end. Guarding the three-point line aggressively brings costs inside, playing either zone or man-to-man, switching between. Funk looks great as a stretch five at the offensive end, but is probably meant to be a stretch four in a fully stocked lineup.
The Hawks are playing fast, which is fantastic when you are pressing advantages, but this season, fast means exposing disadvantages. The quicker the Hawks play, maybe the easier it is for the score to get out of hand, especially with a team that is just fair at shooting all the three-pointers they try.
It was easy for some to think maybe the Hawks were too dependent on Ryan Daly last season or early on this time. (Lange was not one of those people.) It’s been all too obvious since Daly went out in late December with an injured thumb that SJU simply couldn’t replace his offense, even if Daly hadn’t gotten off to an efficient start this season.
On the hunt for any semblance of good news lately, St. Joe’s put out a press release Sunday saying that Daly was “set to have the cast on his left hand removed and be reevaluated in the coming days.” What that turns out to mean, we’ll find out. Even with Daly available, SJU is 318th in Division I in experience, which matches up pretty closely in being 309th in D1 in defensive effective field goal percentage, according to KenPom.com.
When I suggested to a knowledgeable Hawk fan (who sounded ready for change two years ago) that Daly had kept SJU above water last season, he wasn’t buying it — six wins was above water? Yeah, that ship didn’t sink to the bottom, most games staying competitive.
The last time St. Joe’s went two straight seasons with single digits wins was 1988-90, the last two seasons of the Jim Boyle era. Before that, you have to go back to the early ’30s.
So let’s assume this is the bottom right here right now. Lange’s most important pitch now may be convincing his current young players that the corner is about to be turned. The fan base is being asked to look a little farther down the road. A big ask.
This was a tough task the day Lange got the job. We just had no idea how tough. Now we do.