Old-style ball elevates 19-0 Saint Joseph's into lofty new territory near top of polls

Virtues of teamwork pay off for No. 3 Hawks

College Basketball

February 07, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - They are fun to watch and, if you listen to Phil Martelli, even more fun to coach. They play a game that is unfamiliar these days, especially to a generation that eschews passing and shooting for dunking and showboating.

The Hawks of Saint Joseph's University are not the only practitioners of this lost art, and senior point guard Jameer Nelson is not the only selfless player left in college basketball.

Yet considering what they have done already this season, and what they might do in March, is there a more feel-good story than this blue-collar team from this blue-collar town?

"It boils down to five guys against five guys," Martelli said last week. "All of the other trappings, they make it a nice story, but that's not playing the game. We're there to play the game."

Duke and Stanford, the two teams ranked ahead of the still-unbeaten Hawks this week, play similar games. Their respective home courts - Cameron Indoor Stadium and Maples Pavilion - are not the gaudy, 18,000-seat luxury-boxed palaces that have risen up across the college landscape in recent years.

But there is something distinctive about St. Joe's.

From the size of the 54-year-old Alumni Memorial Field House (3,200 capacity, but don't invite the fire marshal for big games) to the lack of a high school pedigree for most of the players (of the upperclassmen, only Nelson was a Top 100 recruit), the Hawks are definitely a throwback.

The only things missing are long socks and tight shorts.

"We have guys who really know how to play the game, guys who aren't going to go out there and be fancy and try to get their numbers," said Nelson, a pocket-sized Jason Kidd who is considered by many to be the best true point guard in the country.

But the Hawks have been getting their numbers: a 19-0 record going into today's game against La Salle at the Palestra. And St. Joe's has been getting its props: the highest ranking in school history and the highest for a Philadelphia team since Temple was No. 1 in 1988.

The first act was telling - an opening night victory over then-No. 10 Gonzaga in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.

The first half of that game seemed to reinforce what Martelli was feeling about his team in preseason practice.

"I knew that night that we had the makings here of something special," recalled Martelli.

Said junior guard Delonte West: "It definitely got our fuel going for the year. It was a good game to see where we stood. We took a lot of confidence just in the atmosphere. We've kept it rolling along."

How long the Hawks keep rolling is anyone's guess. Of the eight remaining games before the Atlantic 10 tournament in Dayton, Ohio, next month, only three will be outside the city limits.

Martelli knows the target is getting bigger, the stakes higher.

"I don't know if I like it or dislike it, but it is something that we've talked about," Martelli said. "If we are to lose a game, we're going to have to wait until the other team rolls around, maybe mobs the floor, to shake hands. That vivid imagery burns in our stomachs. We don't want that to happen."

There are more than a few skeptics who say that being No. 3 in the polls and No. 2 in the Rating Percentage Index (behind only Duke) is simply a mirage, that it doesn't matter that the Hawks could be the first team to go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten since Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991.

In his private moments, of which Martelli has few these days, even he laughs at how incredulous this fairy tale season seems.

"To me it's humbling at times to think what's been created," said Martelli, 49, who is in his ninth season as the Hawks head coach after spending 10 years as an assistant. "It's exciting and I don't shy away from it knowing that the spotlight is so bright."

Neither does Nelson, who decided to return to college after going to Chicago last spring for the NBA's pre-draft camp.

Most of, if not all, his decision was based on his draft position (late first round then), but there was a part of Nelson that wanted to remain the carefree kid from nearby Chester, Pa.

"You're going to take chances by going and you're going to take chances by staying," Nelson said. "My biggest thing was that I wanted to get myself in position to get my degree, and I wanted to have fun and be a kid again. I'm probably one of the happiest players in the world right now."

Calling the 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior "the piece that turned it" when he showed up as a freshman and helped stop a string of three straight losing seasons by leading the Hawks to a 26-7 record, Martelli is amused at all the attention that Nelson is suddenly receiving.

"This is not a new phenomenon," Martelli said. "He was the best point guard in America as a freshman and I don't even know who the other point guards were. It was obvious he played the position the way that [James] Naismith and those guys decided the position should be played. He played it from Day 1."

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