Hawks not afraid to talk perfection
PHILADELPHIA -- Phil Martelli saved his best pregame speech for what was probably Saint Joseph's last realistic chance to lose a regular-season game.
Martelli paced back and forth in the locker room, his voice rising with each point, demanding that the Hawks seize greatness and not shy away from a golden opportunity.
He wanted them to want the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and to shrug off media talk about being a pretender rather than a contender.
He wanted them to embrace Jameer Nelson and the Hawks being on this week's Sports Illustrated cover.
He dismissed the SI jinx. So, too, did the Hawks, beating Dayton 81-67 on Wednesday night. Saint Joseph's moved to 21-0 overall (10-0 Atlantic 10) and handed the Flyers their first league loss (19-4, 9-1).
So why do this now? Why let the Hawks know the importance of Wednesday's game? Why not just go through the usual coachspeak and tell the team that they just have to worry about one game at a time?
"Because this is a moment in time for all of these kids," Martelli said. "You don't know when this will pass again. Jameer is going to be in the NBA but when will he have this kind of attention? We've got some kids who may never play basketball again, so why not embrace the opportunities that are being presented to us? We don't have to run away from anything."
This is Saint Joseph's, the little school in suburban Philadelphia with a glorified high school gym as its home. The SI cover means something here, maybe more so than at Duke, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky and schools that are used to such attention.
"I'll be honest with you, that when I saw it online (Tuesday) and then saw it live (Wednesday), it gave me chills,'' Martelli said of the SI cover that has a picture of Nelson labeled as "The Little Man From The Little School That's Beating Everyone."
"I got chills knowing that representing this school is the best player in college basketball and probably the best person in college basketball,'' Martelli said. "I'm delighted for this whole university that the spotlight is so bright. I'm proud to represent this school in every way, shape and form."
If you think the players and the coaches, at least here, don't get caught up with being one of the two remaining undefeated teams, then you're kidding yourself. They talk about it, but they're not consumed by it. It's human nature to discuss it. How could they not? They know they are experiencing something extremely rare for this school.
And don't think the Hawks don't pay attention to Stanford, either. Nelson said it's hard for him to ignore that the Cardinal are also undefeated (20-0) since everyone he knows keeps telling him Stanford's scores.
"It's becoming a personal goal for us," junior guard Delonte West said of going unbeaten. "There's so many naysayers out there who keep saying we don't play anybody. We've got to keep proving that we're legit."
"Do we want to? Of course," Nelson said of going undefeated. "But right now it wouldn't mean anything because we've got to stay focused. It has been mentioned, though."
Rhode Island is the only team left on the Hawks schedule with a winning record. But the Rams lost again Wednesday to Temple at home, their seventh loss in the last nine games.
The Hawks get the Rams twice, play at Fordham and Massachusetts, and play Temple at the Palestra and St. Bonaventure at home. That's all that remains in front of the Hawks before the Atlantic 10 tournament. The last team to go through the regular season undefeated was the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels.
"We don't plan on losing," West said. "If we lose, it's going to mean a team had their best game against us."
"I don't know what someone has to do to beat us," Nelson said. "I could sit here and tell you what someone could do to hurt us, but I'm not dumb enough to do that."
Martelli said a team is going to have really "beat us," since the Hawks are playing so well offensively. Sure, the Hawks had some defensive lapses and gave up 16 offensive rebounds to the Flyers. But stopping Nelson and West is becoming almost impossible.
Dayton coach Brian Gregory saw a comparison of those two to former Michigan State guards Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves. Gregory is a former Spartans' assistant.
Nelson had 16 points, seven assists and three steals. West scored 24 points with five assists and one steal. There were countless plays of the two working in concert, but nothing better than one time when Nelson was at the top of the key and found West on a backdoor cut for a reverse layup.
"On any given night, they both can score 35," Gregory said. "They can also dominate a game by scoring 10 points each. West is a better distributor than 'Mo Pete.' But both of them have unbelievable court savvy. That play with Nelson and West was Mateen and Mo. No other two guards could make that play. That comes from playing together for a long time. They have a great feel for each other."
Nelson said he wished West would have been on the cover of SI with him. Martelli said he would have put West over Nelson's shoulder, because as soon as Nelson steps aside, West will be ready to take over the program.
West is expected to do exactly what Nelson did a year ago and test the draft process but ultimately return for his senior season. But he knows next season won't duplicate this one.
Martelli talked in the pregame about delivering a knockout punch to Dayton. The Flyers beat the Hawks twice last season. They were the defending A-10 tournament champs. This was the only meeting in the regular season between the two schools. They could meet in the A-10 final in Dayton, although the Flyers have a rough road ahead with road games at Xavier and George Washington before the tournament.
Regardless, the message was sent. Saint Joseph's sent Dayton back to Ohio knowing the Hawks are the class of the league, ready to roll through it and are on the verge of going through the season unbeaten.
Saint Joseph's added to its amazing string of going through games without trailing. The Hawks have trailed for just 64 minutes all season.
"It's become real special," Nelson said of the season. "But we've got games left, more things to accomplish. We're establishing ourselves as a No. 1 seed. But first we want to get those (A-10) rings ... Everyone thought we had weaknesses. Well ... "
So far, it's hard to pick them out when all Saint Joseph's does is keep winning.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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