The IUP Crimson Hawks entered the season looking good on paper.
They look pretty good on the court, too.
IUP entered the season with most of the personnel returning from the PSAC championship squad of 2020, which came only days before much of the world shut down at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, the Hawks are 4-0, scoring 95.3 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the field. All five starters are averaging double figures. They are playing the most wide-open offensive style coach Joe Lombardi has allowed in his 15 previous seasons because IUP has the personnel that excels in the open court, scoring at the basket and shooting 3-pointers. The Hawks play inside-out, and there isn’t much in-between, with only a handful of their buckets coming on something other than layups or 3s.
In its most recent outing, IUP won at Bowie State, 90-83, in its first road game of the season. Shawndale Jones scored a career-high 37 points, and fifth-year forward Tommy Demogerontas posted a double-double of 23 points and 15 rebounds.
IUP took an early 15-3 advantage, saw it dwindle to two points at halftime, lost the lead on two brief occasions early in the second half and then rebuilt a double-digit margin. Jones scored 29 points in the second half.
“It was his type of game, open court, when he’s at his best,” Lombardi said. “The other guards kept looking for him, and he took advantage of a lot of different situations and had a big offensive output that ended up putting us up double digits again, and we kind of cruised home a little bit.”
WELCOME, SHAWNDALE: Two years ago, Jones was the sixth man after transferring from Division I NJIT. His most memorable performance came at the most crucial time, helping IUP crush Shippensburg in the second half of the PSAC championship game. That was the last time IUP played before this season.
Jones, a 6-foot-2 redshirt senior guard, scored 24 points that day, by far his career high. He matched it last week, and on Friday, he destroyed it.
IUP’s newest offensive threat is averaging 25.8 points per game as a starter while shooting 53 percent overall, 39 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the free throw line. He also averages 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
“Shawndale has gotten a lot better the last two years,” Lombardi said. “He’s just a better version of himself physically, and he’s improved his shot, and along with that, he’s a little more athletic, and that improves his finishing ability.”
TOMMY DOUBLE-D: IUP fans, but not many opponents, are familiar with Demogerontas, a 6-8 left-handed power forward who came to IUP two years ago as a transfer from Division I Northern Illinois to play one more season of college ball. He tore his ACL in the fourth game, sat out the rest of that season and last year with the rest of the team and began making up for lost time earlier this month.
He’s coming off his best and most efficient performance — 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting (4-for-4 from 3-point range) and 15 rebounds. He is averaging 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting a team-high 67 percent from the field, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range.
“Although Shawndale had a career night in points, Tommy could very well have had the best overall game of anybody we had that night,” Lombardi said.
Last week, Demogerontas made the play of the season to this point, taking Dave Morris’ lob pass in transition and slamming the ball through the hoop.
Demogerontas has been a stalwart on the boards and on the defensive end, too. Most visibly, he has more than held his own when defending on the perimeter against guards that excel at taking bigger players to the basket.
SPEAKING OF DEFENSE: IUP held its first three opponents under 40 percent shooting and won by 26, 29 and 39 points. Bowie State shot 48 percent and lost by seven.
“We like our ability to score, but defensively, we’re not playing at a consistent championship level,” Lombardi said. “We have spurts where we’ve been outstanding, but sometimes fatigue gets to us because we are playing faster, and we have to learn how to slow the tempo so we do a better job defensively.”
TURNOVERS, PART I: IUP is averaging 17.5 turnovers per game, a few more than usual for a Lombardi team.
The Hawks are also scoring faster than in the past, leading to more possessions, thus more opportunities to commit turnovers.
Given IUP’s sparkling offensive numbers, maybe it all evens out in the end.
“A lot of it is just playing fast and being overly aggressive sometimes. That’s probably the biggest thing,” Lombardi said. “Some of them helped Bowie get back in it, but I’m not concerned. We’re playing a little bit of a high-risk offense and we have eliminated some of those, but it’s a little bit of a learning process, too. As they make mistakes, they’ll learn how to avoid them.”
IUP is also averaging 19 assists per game, which is a handful more than a typical Lombardi team.
TURNOVERS, PART II: Don’t bother howling when a referee “misses” a traveling violation. It’s just not being called this season. In IUP’s first three home games, there were two — 2 — traveling violations called.
A couple handfuls of traveling violations were forgiven, and only a couple egregious ones were enforced.
Obviously, it’s one of those points of emphasis — or non-emphasis — for officials this season.
MEMORY REFRESHER: IUP didn’t play basketball last season. The PSAC said it would provide a schedule and hold a conference championship if six schools voted to play, but only four — IUP, Clarion, Mercyhurst and Gannon — were willing.
Mercyhurst, Gannon and Clarion played independent schedules of roughly a dozen games or so. IUP split two games with Gannon and beat Clarion in March in games that count in the official NCAA statistics.
IUP’s rivals to the south, the West Virginia schools, played a season and held a conference tournament, and there was another regional tournament at West Liberty, which the Hilltoppers won.
There was an Elite Eight, and Northwest Missouri State beat West Texas A&M for the national title. There were no fans.
This year’s Elite Eight is March 23-26 in Evansville, Ind.