- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Saint Joseph's looked a bit odd Saturday. Maybe it was those squeaky-clean home whites the Hawks wore. But it was same old St. Joe's in its Atlantic 10 opener, as the Hawks kept their perfect record into 2004 by beating George Washington.
But excuse the folks on Hawk Hill if they didn't recognize their team. St. Joe's, No. 10 in both polls last week, and No. 1 in the first RPI of 2004, has been forced to take its impressive act on the road more than any other national contender. And the way Phil Martelli's squad went about winning during its non-conference season makes Saint Joseph's 11-0 start among the most credible records in the country.
St. Joe's is one of 10 perfect teams that entered conference play. And, among the unbeatens, the Hawks have taken the toughest route to its best start in school history.
Seven times in 2003 the Hawks played in hostile environments. Yes, three of those games came in the Palestra on Penn's campus in Philadelphia. And while their fans didn't have to travel outside the city limits, trust us, the Hawks were the road team against Penn. Against Drexel? Well, it's not Saint Joseph's fault that the Hawks can bring as many or more fans than Drexel to a game at the Palestra even though the Dragons' campus is two blocks away. The third game at the Palestra was, yes, a home game against Boston College.
Still, Saint Joseph's played in Madison Square Garden against Gonzaga, where the Hawks were the "unofficial" home team because of the proximity. But the game was still in New York, not at Hawk Hill. Saint Joseph's beat Cal in Oakland in the Pete Newell Challenge. The other road trips were at Delaware, Boston University and Old Dominion. And while those teams may not put fear into most top 25 teams, there aren't too many teams with a legit chance to contend for a top two seed come March that are willing to play those kinds of road games (read: at low or mid-major teams).
The only games St. Joe's played on campus prior to New Year's Eve were against Pacific and San Francisco: The fewest of any top 25 team.
"I already checked it," Martelli said in reference to his Hawks' lack of home games. "I'm not apologizing for our schedule. I'm proud of it. We just don't buy games."
As a result, Saint Joseph's strength of schedule was a lofty No. 7 in this week's ratings. The Hawks reserved some flexibility in their non-conference schedule when Jameer Nelson was deciding on whether or not to return for his senior season. When he decided to delay his NBA career, the Hawks had room on their schedule to add Gonzaga and Cal on neutral courts.
"We traded an opportunity to play Fairfield at home for playing Cal," Martelli said. "The teams that win on the road create the separation in the Atlantic 10, and we'll have really hard road games in January and February. But we've already done that now."
Saint Joseph's doesn't traditionally get the phone calls from the networks that lead to made-for-TV games. The Hawks did this year for the first time under Martelli. And Martelli knows it's because of Nelson.
"I don't spend any time justifying our schedule," Martelli said.
Nobody is asking Martelli to defend his Hawks. The same can't be said for others, however, as fraudulent records permeate the college hoops landscape. As a result, the early power ratings are a bit askew entering 2004 (Boston College at No. 13? Rutgers at No. 21?)
But, ultimately, the Hawks will be rewarded for playing away from home if they continue to take care of business in the A-10. Four of their 10 non-conference games were against the top 100. The A-10 may only give St. Joe's potentially five or six top 100 games, depending on how a few teams play in the league like Xavier (at No. 102). Playing Villanova on the road in a non-conference game will help the Hawks' power rating too.
If the Hawks can get through the season with only one, two or three losses, the selection committee will have an interesting dilemma as to how high to seed them. One certainty, however, is that Hawks won't be criticized for staying home.
As for some teams? Here's a look inside some of the more interesting non-conference records. (RPI and Strength of Schedule rankings provided by ESPN Insider Joe Lunardi through games played Sunday, Feb. 4.):
Gonzaga (RPI 10, SOS 33): Don't even try to challenge Gonzaga's scheduling. Mark Few and his trusted colleague Dr. Jerry Krause crafted the perfect compliment to the WCC schedule. Only one team -- Loyola Marymount -- is under 100 in the latest power ratings. That means the Zags will be judged in large part by their non-conference schedule.
The Zags played five teams in the top 100 and three in the top 25 -- going 1-2 against that slate with the lone win on the road against Maryland in D.C. But the Zags went out and played Stanford in Oakland, beat Missouri (No. 58) in Seattle, and Saint Joseph's in New York. Getting Georgia (No. 60) in Spokane will turn out to be a plus, especially in light of Georgia's win over Georgia Tech.
How high can the Zags get in the seeding process? Win the WCC convincingly, and they should be treated as well as they've ever been by the selection committee. (Gonzaga was a No. 6 seed in 2002, losing to Wyoming in the first round).
As for "true home games,'' the count for Gonzaga is three. We know that playing Georgia in Spokane was a home game for Gonzaga as was Missouri at Key Arena. But the Zags played only three games in the Kennel in Spokane -- Idaho, Denver and Montana.
BYU (RPI 24, SOS 50): The Cougars play yet another non-conference road game this week at N.C. State (No. 54). The trip to Raleigh will conclude their pre-Mountain West schedule. It will also be the sixth road game for the Cougars.
BYU also handed Oklahoma State (No. 65) its only loss, and that came in the Delta Center in Salt Lake City -- a neutral court, but not an impartial site. BYU's two losses were on the road at top 50 teams Cal and Utah State. The Cougars have played five top 100 teams. N.C. State will be the sixth.
The human element takes over when looking at a team like BYU. If the Cougars finish first or second in the MWC with a decent record (see: 20 wins), they will be rewarded for going on the road and winning games. It doesn't hurt that only two teams (New Mexico and Air Force) are outside the top 100 in the MWC entering conference play.
Pittsburgh (RPI 32, SOS 183): The Panthers are off to their best start in school history, going 14-0 into Big East play. Pitt also has never played 20 home games, at least that's according to the current staff.
Jamie Dixon took the schedule that Ben Howland gave him and actually added two of its best early tests -- Florida State at home and Alabama in New York. Both were good additions considering the Tide is No. 10 and the Seminoles are No. 44 in the latest RPI. Beating Murray State (No. 45) and Georgia (No. 60) also are quality wins at home.
But the rest of the schedule had only one team below 200, as Penn State checked in at No. 117. This schedule shouldn't hurt the Panthers if they can wind up with 25-plus wins and compete for a top spot in the Big East. But if they fall a bit in the league, the soft schedule will come back into play. Still, the Panthers enter conference play with loads of confidence, which is what Dixon needed a team on the younger side to have after beating a few higher-rated teams during their unblemished run.
Dixon gets a bit defensive about the Pitt schedule and usually sticks up for Alabama, Florida State, Murray State and Georgia. And he should. Those were the toughest games on the schedule. But the Panthers only left the state once to play Alabama in New York. That could ultimately be held against the Panthers if there is a decision to make with another team in terms of seeding.
Cincinnati (RPI 20, SOS 157): Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins purposely pushed some of his higher-profile, non-conference games into February (at Xavier and at Wake Forest) because he knew he wouldn't have Florida transfer James White for the first month of the season.
The Bearcats only left Cincinnati once to play at Valparaiso. And the best team to come into Shoemaker was Dayton (No. 67), even though Clemson (No. 48) was higher rated in the power ratings. Akron (No. 79) was the only other team rated in the top 100. Cincinnati played three teams 200 or below, including Valpo.
But the undefeated Bearcats shouldn't fret about how this will affect their seeding. Cincinnati has the two aforementioned non-conference games and now plays in what could be arguably the second-toughest conference at the top. Cincinnati plays two games against Louisville (No. 3) and two against Marquette, which will likely climb higher than No. 94 in the coming weeks. The Bearcats will have six other games against top 100 teams within C-USA -- including No. 37 Memphis.
It may be too early to get a read on how the Bearcats' strength of schedule could ultimately affect them come March.
Texas Tech (RPI 7, SOS 30): Bob Knight will schedule anyone, anytime, anywhere. But he wants to bring high-profile teams into Lubbock. But, he also wasn't going to shy away from road games -- playing at SMU, New Mexico, Ohio State and a game in Dallas against Iowa.
Playing in the Preseason NIT in New York, where the Red Raiders beat Utah (No. 34) and lost to Georgia Tech (No. 18), certainly will have shelf life. The Red Raiders played six games out of Lubbock, three true road games. They won two of the three away from home, losing only at SMU. The only other loss was to Georgia Tech on a neutral court.
Texas Tech did a good job of not scheduling the bottom feeders, either. Tech played only one team above 200 (Sam Houston State at 286) and seven teams in the top 100. Playing in the Big 12 is an obvious plus with all but Baylor (263), Texas A&M (266) and Kansas State (130) in the top 100.
Alabama (RPI 11, SOS 4): Give Alabama coach Mark Gottfried loads of credit. He might have the highest comprehension skills of any coach. Snubbed by the NCAA Tournament two years ago, he actually listened to the selection committee when it told him to go out and schedule better in non-conference games.
The Tide played four games out of Tuscaloosa and brought in quality teams like Charlotte (49) and Wisconsin (12) to Tuscaloosa. Yes, the Tide opened the season with a loss to Pittsburgh in New York, but has since won eight of 10 games. The only losses were at Providence (No. 2) and at Xavier (No. 102). Alabama took another neutral court game in Las Vegas and beat Oregon (31).
The Tide played only one team above 200, and played five teams in the top 100 ... with Xavier just outside the century mark.
If Alabama can keep its level of play consistently high in the SEC and finish among the top three in the West, it should have a strong argument for getting a bid based on a non-conference slate any committee member must respect.
Florida State (RPI 43, SOS 118): The Seminoles also had an inexperienced team heading into the season, so expecting FSU to load up in non-conference games wouldn't be fair. But the Seminoles can make up for any softness during its pre-ACC action by doing some damage in this season's best conference.
There will be plenty of scheduling points in the ACC over the next two months. Every ACC team is in the top 100 and only one -- N.C. State (No. 54) -- is out of the top 50.
Florida State didn't get a favor from the ACC/Big Ten Challenge by drawing Northwestern (198). The Seminoles also lost its annual game against Florida (14) and lost at Pittsburgh. The only other road game was a win at Miami (153), and it's hard to fault Leonard Hamilton for the way his former team has faltered.
But the Seminoles played nine teams outside of the top 100 and it will be 10 when they draw Savannah State in February. And seven of those 10 are worse than 200. If Florida State is on the bubble then who it beat in the ACC will be more of a factor than who it played in November and December.
UCLA (RPI 42, SOS 31): The Bruins are going to schedule non-conference games based on television. They will get plenty of made-for-TV matchups. And this always helps UCLA be in position to get in the tournament.
Still, the Bruins lost to Kentucky (8) in Anaheim, at Michigan (28) and at home to UC Santa Barbara (155). They beat Michigan State at home (55) and the Spartans shouldn't slide too far, even though they're struggling heading into the Big Ten. Four of UCLA's seven non-conference games to date were against teams in the top 100. The remaining two -- at St. John's (125) and Notre Dame (168) -- could very well be in the top 100 by tipoff.
The Bruins will get into the Dance if it continues to play well in the Pac-10. Opening up with a home sweep of the Oregon schools were two steps in the right direction.
UCLA will be rewarded for playing teams in the top 100, not to mention winning at least one notable game, so far. If it can finish in among the top three or four in the Pac-10, the Bruins will be back on the bubble.
As conference play begins, let's recognize impressive non-conference runs and expose a few others.