Homegrown talent stays home, helping St. Joseph's take off

Guards O'Connor, Nelson spurn better offers, lift Hawks into rarified air

West at San Diego

NCAA Tournament

March 17, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO - When Marvin O'Connor became unhappy with his time at Villanova, normal college basketball protocol called for him to transfer to another big-name school outside of his native Philadelphia.

Jameer Nelson was leaning toward St. Joseph's when schools with higher profiles - like Temple and Massachusetts - came along. Coach Phil Martelli, who had been alone in courting Nelson since he was a ninth-grader, worried he might lose him.

But while custom means neither O'Connor nor Nelson should be representing St. Joseph's - a program that sees glory only occasionally - they're doing exactly that, all the way into today's battle with No. 1-ranked Stanford in the West Regional.

The Hawks (26-6) have tied a school record for wins, thanks to Nelson and O'Connor, one of the nation's top backcourts. O'Connor, a junior shooting guard, averages 21.6 points a game, while Nelson, the point guard averages 12.6 points and 6.3 assists.

"He's the best point guard and best player I have ever played with," St. Joe's center Damian Reid said of Nelson. "He makes plays for us night in and night out."

The most recent victim was Georgia Tech, which saw O'Connor score eight of his 21 points during a crucial three-minute span in the second half to help his team win its first-round game. Nelson, meanwhile, was in on eight assists while scoring 13 points of his own.

"They are a very good basketball team and those two kids have carried them to a national ranking," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "Great players make big shots and big plays at the most important times, and Marvin made two shots when we cut it to three," late in the second half.

O'Connor, who had a falling-out with Steve Lappas' staff at Villanova, wanted to stay close to home and the St. Joseph's campus on the Main Line fit the bill.

"When you know that you want to stay in the area, you eliminate all the options out of the area," said O'Connor, a junior who scored 16.6 points a game last year, but did so while playing for a 13-16 team.

For a rudderless team, the missing ingredient is a point guard, and Martelli hoped that Nelson, whom he discovered because of his ties to a town near Philadelphia where the guard grew up, Chester.

Martelli, who played college basketball in Chester, knew that at any moment, the "big fish" would figure out that Nelson could play, and Nelson would leave. This was what Martelli had experienced with future NBA first-rounders Bob Sura, Donyell Marshall and Adonal Foyle.

But while the big fish came, not as many came as Martelli expected. Temple and Massachusetts offered scholarships, and Nelson politely declined.

"Coach Martelli came out so early in the recruiting process, it made me feel comfortable," he explained.

"It speaks volumes about the kid," Martelli said, "that he would acknowledge that we were there first, and that he would honor that when he made his commitment."

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