- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- This is why Jameer Nelson was wise to come back for his senior season.
But, before recapping Friday night's opening salvo to his player of the year campaign, let's go back a few months. And, instead of a blustery New York City night inside Madison Square Garden, picture a restaurant near Rush Street in Chicago during the week of the NBA Pre-Draft Camp in June.
Nelson's cousin looks at the 6-foot point guard and asks this reporter: "Why should Nelson return to college for his senior season?"
Nelson's summer league coach and Saint Joseph's assistant Monte Ross don't answer. Nelson doesn't say a word. Is it a trick question?
After a few moments, the cousin answers his own question. He's concerned Nelson could be setting himself up for a fall. It's called "senioritis" -- and the virus spread among the 2001-02 Hawks when Nelson was just a sophomore. That St. Joe's team finished in the NIT, despite a senior-laden roster and the momentum of playing (though losing to) Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament the previous year.
But, the response the cousin heard was that wouldn't happen in 2003-04, because of who was sitting next to him in the booth.
The reasons Nelson is wearing a Saint Joseph's jersey for one more season were and remain simple: Nelson can both win national player of the year honors and leave a legacy at Saint Joseph's as its best player -- ever. And, over the next four months, he can play his way into the lottery in the 2004 NBA draft. Had he risked his professional future on the four weeks or so he spent this spring testing his value, he was at best a bubble first-round pick.
Oh, and while he's at it, he can claim the national stage all to himself. Like, say, Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Nelson's cousin, who will rename nameless for the sake of further embarrassment, may or may not have said anything to him after Saint Joseph's 73-66 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga. But it's a good bet that he was plenty proud of his relative.
"I'm not sure there will be any better point guards who will play on that court this season, save Jason Kidd (of the Nets)," said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli.
When the 18th-ranked Hawks' victory over Gonzaga was complete, and Nelson's 20 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and two steals were in the books, he hurled the ball toward the ceiling of the famed arena. The scene could have been confused for the Final Four. And whether the Hawks get to San Antonio or not, it was the beginning of what should be a remarkable year for Nelson and company.
"I wanted to take some of the pressure off the guys and be more of a leader, especially vocally,'' Nelson said. "I'm finally getting the respect when players put their hands on me. I'm getting the calls and that's a credit to my hard work.
"I couldn't have had a better six months (since the draft decision). The start of the season is great so far."
Nelson won't get many more national television appearances. This one, however, will keep him on everyone's radar until March rolls around.
"You're what college basketball is all about," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said as he put his arm around Nelson in the bowels of the Garden.
Earlier, Few said at a news conference, "There aren't many guards in the country that will drive left and throw all the way back out to the right corner and find a shooter. That's why he is so special, and he's a handful. I don't think there's anyone in the country that can handle him one-on-one.''
Washington transfer Erroll Knight tried and failed. Gonzaga's Blake Stepp, a senior and fellow Wooden preseason All-American, couldn't handle Nelson, either.
No one could, and few will be able to this season -- even once the gimmick defenses start coming at him during the Atlantic 10 season. Part of the reason is how successful Nelson is at finding the St. Joe's shooters Few is talking about.
Tyrone Barley, Pat Carroll and Nelson's backcourt running mate Delonte West were all beneficiaries. Add those wings to the inspired and much-maligned play of Saint Joseph's inside game (Dwayne Jones had six blocks and John Bryant two), and the Hawks have the balance to make a serious NCAA run.
But don't be too quick to give up on Gonzaga's chances to make a run just as deep, if not reach the Final Four, which could still happen.
The Zags were playing hurt. Ronny Turiaf, who is the Zags' best inside player, lasted only five first-half minutes. Turiaf was in a walking boot last week after suffering a stress fracture; he practiced for the first time Thursday when the Zags went to West Point for a workout and to experience life with the Cadets.
Few said Turiaf was terrific in practice, but didn't have the same step during the five-minute stint. That meant Cory Violette was spent by the end of the game and making admittedly poor decisions, such as when he drove the lane and turned the ball over instead of kicking it to a shooter in the corner. That turnover came after Stepp lost the ball and committed a turnover at a critical juncture when the Zags were within two possessions of tying the game.
Gonzaga is still a work in progress, especially freshman Adam Morrison. He might end up being one of the best in the country that few will see. Morrison started, finished with 10 points, and had some solid post moves for a slender forward playing his first game in the Garden nearly 3,000 miles from his home in Spokane, Wash.
"It's Nov. 14 and I can't believe how I feel,'' Few said. "I'm exhausted. The build up to this game was like an NCAA Tournament game.''
Yes, the atmosphere inside the Garden was by far the best of the '03 Coaches vs. Cancer event. The game between the two ranked teams lived up to the hype. Saint Joseph's brought an estimated 6,000 fans to the arena. That included two buses from Nelson's hometown of Chester, Pa.
"Not sure there's anybody left there,'' Nelson said. "It's probably empty.''
"I just hope all of the students get back to campus by Saturday night,'' Martelli joked.
The buzz and noise blew away what St. John's could offer the previous night. The universities' initials -- SJU -- are the same, the colors are close, and with traffic, getting from Queens to the Garden might not be that much closer than taking the train from Philadelphia. All of which made the Garden much more of a "home" to Saint Joe's than St. John's the past 48 hours. Saint Joseph's hadn't played at the Garden since the 1996 postseason NIT.
But Martelli quickly reminded his team that they wouldn't have that many fans at their actual home games. Hawk Hill doesn't hold more than 3,200. And when the Hawks play at the Palestra, the 8,722 fans will be fewer than the 10,328 who packed the Garden.
"Now we've got to go on the road and play at Boston University and at Old Dominion, so we're not going to have 6,000 fans rooting for us. But we've got to be just as sharp,'' Martelli said.
The St. Joe's schedule is amazing, to say the least.
The Hawks may stay in the top 25 all season, but can't get a decent home-and-home series. They can't even buy games. Martelli said he wasn't about to dump signed contracts, so the Hawks will continue to go on the road to an America East and Colonial Athletic Association school before coming home for a game against San Francisco (Dec. 2). The Hawks still have to go to Delaware this season, too.
Martelli said the last time the Hawks bought a home game without a return was St. Peter's in 2000.
"We are what we are,'' Martelli said.
"But tonight we showed that we're more than just Nelson and Delonte,'' Martelli said. "But those two kids are a nice place to start.''
As Few walked by, Martelli said he would see him again in Oakland in December for the Pete Newell Challenge. They won't play against each other, but they should raise the level of competition for Cal and Stanford, respectively. It's what Gonzaga has been doing and will likely continue to do so this season. But now Saint Joseph's, at least in Nelson's senior season, has joined the Bulldogs as the invited guest who won't leave quietly.
"It's an honor to play in a game like this,'' Martelli said again in the hallway of the Garden after saying it in a news conference. "This was great for college basketball and Jameer is such a special player and person.''
It was just one game, but Nelson's cousin will agree, his kin are in the right place. And Nelson's decision to return to school means the Hawks won't fly under the national radar this season.
Jameer Nelson could have gone pro early, but just look at what he would have missed out on.