PITTSBURGH - You can't go into a season saying, man, next year we might be pretty good. You can't go through a season that way. But when the season ends . . .
. . . Still can't. No chance.
That was the message from St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli after this Hawks season ended Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena, after a 70-63 loss to Massachusetts, after a quick exit from the Atlantic Ten tournament, after it all added up to 11-20.
"This has been humbling for all of us,'' Martelli said right afterward. "And I don't think you can get better as a player until you've been humbled. We'll start, and those that are humbled will get better."
Martelli talked of how a player such as Chris Clover played a lot of minutes, but you can't just assume he'll be better next year.
"Not unless he gets better,'' Martelli said, going through the lineup, saying those same words about other returning Hawks. "Older is not better. Experienced is not better. Better has to be better."
If you follow the Hawks, you know the cascade of 2016-17 injuries. St. Joe's began with two legitimate point guards who proved they could score while sharing a backcourt. Shavar Newkirk and Fresh Kimble were the only returnees from the previous season's NCAA tournament rotation along with James Demery. Newkirk went down and it became a struggle to stay above water. Kimble went down and under that water they went.
Those heads should pop up again, but Martelli made another important point. He can't know when.
"I know nothing - don't want to know anything, and will not engage in any conversation about what if and then when,'' Martelli said of the return of injured players, including sophomore forward Pierfrancesco Oliva and freshman Lorenzo Edwards, who both missed the season. "I have no idea. I will say this: The other day I walked out for practice and for the first time in seven months I saw [Oliva] shooting a basketball."
Oliva had started as a freshman before knee surgery took him out.
"He hadn't touched a basketball in seven months,'' Martelli said. "Anybody remember his game? I don't even remember his game. I don't know what he does. I know he's a basketball player. There's no assumptions here."
Not just with Oliva.
"The doctor came in and said two months, four months, six months,'' talking about the variables for the injured guys. "That's part of the dilemma, to be honest with you, going into the spring. What are we going to do - when will we have certain guys? We know our freshmen don't come until June 20-something. What's that [period before then] going to look like? What's this period going to look like?"
If healthy, St. Joe's has the potential, in fact, to be quite a bit better, at least back up into the top half of the A-10. Freshman Charlie Brown proved he is an offensive force, an easy choice for the A-10 all-rookie team. Nick Robinson, another freshman, was forced into a point guard role after the injuries and maybe that will help him down the road in terms of his own skill development. Robinson had seven assists without a turnover against UMass. Demery, who spent his own time on the injured list this season, is always an athletic force, and showed it again against UMass, with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Nobody ever questioned the effort the Hawks put forth this season, and you saw it again on this night. St. Joe's was down, 58-39, with 7 ½ minutes to go and you wondered if they'd bother fouling down the stretch or just bow out quietly. You had your answer with four minutes left, when they were somehow down five points, with the ball. If UMass hadn't started making free throws, the Minutemen may not have gotten out alive.
Heart was never the question this season on Hawk Hill. St. Joe's had 14 offensive rebounds, which was indicative of the effort, but also the fact that there were so, so many offensive rebounds to be had, putting aside the 12 Hawk shots that were blocked by UMass.
You can still go back to the fact this season seemed as if it was going to be a rebuilding from the start, given all that was lost before the injuries.
But Martelli made that larger point about the work needed to be done.
"We just can't be wandering in the desert here,'' Martelli said.
Then, in his last words on the podium, Martelli did make one declaration.
"We're walking out of here with 20 losses,'' the St. Joe's coach said, "and we will not repeat that."