At this time of year, every team in the country will come up with reasons why it can conjure a little bit of March magic and go on a run in its conference tournament.
For a team that finished four games below .500 overall and in the Atlantic 10, Saint Joseph’s probably has as good of a reason to be optimistic as any of them.
That’s because of DeAndre’ Bembry, the Hawks’ electrifying swingman who will be the best player at the Barclays Center every time St. Joe’s plays in the Atlantic 10 tournament, starting with Thursday’s tilt against St. Bonaventure (6:30 p.m., NBCSN).
“We’re going in saying, ‘How do we win on Thursday?’” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “We can win Thursday because we have the best player on the court. But everyone around him has to pick him up and support him.”
It’s the second part of that equation that has led to some struggles for the Hawks (13-17, 7-11), who limp into the A-10 tourney as the No. 10 seed after dropping four of their last five regular-season games. But Bembry has shown the ability to carry his team on his back, as he did when he poured in 33 points to lead the Hawks to a crucial road victory over UMass on Feb. 25 or when he finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds in a win over A-10 regular season champ Davidson on Jan. 31.
And the sophomore feels good about how the freshmen are evolving, as well as the leadership he and fellow captain Chris Wilson bring after both were starters on last year’s team that stormed to an A-10 tourney title. If the Hawks can beat seventh-seeded St. Bonaventure (17-12, 10-8) on Thursday, they’ll advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round where second-seeded Dayton awaits. The semifinals and title game will then be held on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
“We’re definitely ready, especially after what happened last year since we won the championship,” Bembry said. “There’s a lot of excitement. ... We’re feeling confident. We feel like if we can beat St. Bonnies, the last game we had against Dayton was a battle to the last seconds.”
A confident Bembry should be a scary thought for the rest of the A-10. Averaging 17.9 points per game, Bembry is the first-ever St. Joe’s player to lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring, a remarkable feat when you consider the players that have come through the program over the years. And his numbers are impressive across the board. He ranks in the top 15 in the A-10 in 10 of 13 categories, including rebounding (7.8), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). On Tuesday, he was named to the All-Atlantic 10 first team as well as the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-District 2 team.
“When you rank, in my 20 years, individual great seasons, his is right up there with probably Jameer [Nelson’s] junior year and Pat Carroll’s senior year,” Martelli said. “It’s extraordinary.”
Bembry also ranks second in the nation in minutes played (38.6 per game), which has led to Martelli's holding him out of Monday practices to keep him fresh. But the St. Joe’s coach isn’t overly concerned about the possibility of his star player playing 40 minutes a game for four straight days.
“I don’t have any second thoughts about playing him so many minutes,” Martelli said. “He’s played so many minutes because he’s the most important player in the league and he’s the most important player to our team.”
Besides, Bembry wouldn’t have it any other way. He admits playing so much can be tiring at times, but he says it’s something he’s used to from high school. And getting the opportunity to constantly stay on the floor has only raised the sophomore’s confidence throughout the season — which, in turn, has led to his eye-popping statistics.
“I wasn’t expecting to have this good of a year,” he said. “It just happened. I just got into a certain mode. I felt comfortable with my game, and my teammates too.
“I do feel like I can’t be guarded. At certain times, it’s pretty hard to score that much when certain teams are zoned in about me. But I feel very confident in myself.”
The question, of course, for the Hawks is whether one confident star can lead them to their second straight Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Martelli, though, prefers to not even think about last year’s magical run in Brooklyn because many of the players from that year’s team are no longer at St. Joe’s. Now, it’s Bembry’s turn to try to lead the Hawks back to the Big Dance.
“We’re not defending anything,” Martelli said. “The trophy’s in the case. The rings are on people’s fingers. Hopefully the players will have the feel like, ‘This is the hotel, this is how we’re going to get over there, this is what it feels like to play there.’ So that’s the only thing. But we’re not walking in there with a swagger because we won a championship there last year.”