(Mandatory Photo Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA Today Sports)
By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli has watched a lot of film on St. Bonaventure this past week, and Jaylen Adams has stuck in his mind.
Adams’s 31-point, seven-assist, three-steal game against the Hawks on Feb. 3 is hard to forget going into Wednesday night’s pivotal matchup at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. Martelli, however, thinks the conference player of the year candidate has played even better recently.
“I watched our game last but I watched their three previous games: I think he’s playing better than he played against us,” Martelli said in the A-10’s weekly teleconference. “He’s more confident, he’s spreading the ball around, he’s a wonderful passer.
“And he puts guys who aren’t their primary guys… he puts those other guys in positions where they can score the ball. Against UMass they needed 83 to win and a lot of that’s due to Adams’s improved play. I think you’re talking about clearly an all-league first team kid.”
The St. Joe’s staff knows Adams wasn’t a one-man show in that 83-73 Bona victory against them, however. Dion Wright scored 18 points on 6-of-18 shooting, including two three-pointers. Idris Taqqee had what was then a career high with 13 points, with three treys, while Marcus Posley chipped in 11 points to round out the players in double-figures.
SBU attempted 34 three-balls in that contest, making 13 of them. It shot 14-of-15 from the free throw line and only committed two turnovers.
“They play beautiful basketball,” Martelli acknowledged. “We were on our heels and they were the aggressor the entire time. Unless we can come up with a plan to guard them, we’re gonna be at the whim of whether a ball goes in the basket or not.”
The Bonnies know that while they’ve improved since they left SJU’s Hagan Arena with a win and some cheesesteaks, so has their opponent.
The Hawks have won six of their last seven since that loss, with notable wins at George Washington and against Dayton. The lone loss was a 99-93 defeat at Davidson in which star forward DeAndre Bembry and guards Aaron Brown and Shavar Newkirk played just 27 minutes each due to foul trouble.
St. Joe’s is tied for first in the conference with VCU at 13-3, with Bonaventure a game behind at 12-4.
One of the reasons Martelli and Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt both gave for the Hawk re-emergence was the play of 6-foot-7 senior forward Isaiah Miles. Miles leads the team in scoring with 17.9 points a game and rebounding with 8.1 boards a contest. Schmidt called him “probably the most improved player in the league.”
“They play him at the five and he’s a mismatch problem, screening and popping,” Schmidt noted. “He’s a smart player; he’s always face-cutting and back-cutting (without the basketball).
“To me, it’s remarkable what he’s done from last year to this year. He’s changed his body (and) you can see he’s playing with so much more confidence, and he stretches the defense.”
Martelli talked about another factor of Miles’s improvement: it has made Bembry’s job much easier. The 6-foot-6 NBA prospect still logs the most minutes (36.7 a game) and shoots the most shots (13.8 attempts a game), but those numbers are both a couple digits from last season.
The pressure to be the team’s everything has been relieved. Now Bembry is averaging 4.4 assists a game (as opposed to 3.6 last year) and committing just 2.2 turnovers a contest (as opposed to 2.9 last year). His field goal percentage is up from 43.2 percent to 47.8 percent, and he’s playing much more efficiently across the board.
“It means, personally, that I’ve put him in a better situation to shine,” Martelli said. “Last year was hard for him because he’s never in his life been a volume shooter. We needed him to be a volume shooter and a scorer. He is at his best when he facilitates.”
“He’s always been a facilitator, he has an extraordinarily high basketball IQ and he really is one of those guys who would much prefer to pass than to shoot. Last year I put him in a bad spot.”
One x-factor in this game, a player who will defend Bembry at various points in the night, is Taqqee, the 6-foot-4 sophomore out of Snellville, Ga.
Fans and media members alike have often pointed out Taqqee’s offensive deficiencies, but his 19-point, five-three pointer performance in the win over UMass showed his potential. Not only is he Bona’s best perimeter defender, he now has two double-figure scoring game this season, including one against Joe’s.
Add an “unknown” to the scoring mix alongside perennial stat-sheet stuffers like Adams, Posley and Wright, and SBU is even more dangerous.
“He’s really worked his tail off in the gym all year, and he deserved a game like that,” Schmidt said. “If not the hardest worker on the team, he’s close. He’s always in (the gym) and he knew his jump shot was the weak part of his game last year.
“It’s not like he’s Stephen Curry, but he’s playing with so much more confidence. UMass was playing a triangle-and-two and they left him open and he felt disrespected… When you see a kid work his tail off and have some success, it’s great to see.”
Taqqee will hope to continue his contributions on both sides of the floor at the Blue Cross Arena, a technically neutral arena that is about as “un-neutral” as it gets. Schmidt and his team know that the crowd will be pulling heavily for the Bonnies as they try to stamp another quality win on their NCAA Tournament resumes.
“We have a great alumni base up there (in Rochester),” Schmidt said. “We just thought looking at the schedule and knowing our students aren’t going to be here to move the game to Rochester.
“It should be a good game. I know we’re anticipating a great crowd so we’re excited about going up there and playing.”