Hawks have major holes to fill
PHILADELPHIA -- The effects of Hurricane Jeanne were hammering Philadelphia with rain and wind Tuesday, so much that Saint Joseph's had to move its pickup game off the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse main floor because of slick footing from humidity. Meanwhile, a leak started to drip down in front of one basket.
A 27-0 regular season, a trip to the Elite Eight, and a national player of the year winner put the Hawks on the college basketball map for the mainstream fan. But the magical season hasn't fixed everything around here.
There are holes to fill, some as small as patching up the roof of the glorified high school gym before the next heavy rain. Others are as cavernous as replacing Jameer Nelson's leadership at the point, his 20.6 points a game, Delonte West's 18.9 points a game and Tyrone Barley's lockdown defense on a team's top ballhandler.
No one is expecting miracles. Saint Joe's understands its run as the sport's feel-good story is over. But the Hawks don't believe they've exhausted their 15 minutes of fame and taken their spot at the back of the line in the A-10.
"We don't want people labeling us as one of those revolving-door teams in the A-10,'' senior guard Pat Carroll said of teams taking their turns atop the league, like UMass and Temple, only to suffer through exhausting rebuilding phases.
"This year is almost as important as last year,'' Carroll said. "Every college basketball fan knew who we were. Now everyone will look at us and say, 'They can't stay at this level.' The only way to change that is to make the tournament every year.''
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, a humorist and optimist who insists the Hawks will field a team this season despite rumors they would shut down with Nelson and West off to the NBA, uses Gonzaga as a model. The Zags made the Elite Eight in 1999. They haven't missed the Dance since.
Gonzaga didn't just have a great team. The Zags built a solid program. Martelli has already done that in 10 years (four NCAAs, including the two Sweet 16 berths and an Elite Eight). But he understands he has to continue to keep the Hawks relevant after all the attention Saint Joseph's received last season.
The Hawks were one shot away from the Final Four -- or, really one deflection. Carroll dove for a loose ball once Oklahoma State's Joey Graham fumbled his dribble. Once Graham regained possession, he shuffled the ball to John Lucas for a winning 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds remaining in the Elite Eight game in New Jersey.
"I still haven't watched that game,'' Carroll said. "I skimmed it, barely missed getting it. If only I had longer hands.''
Reliving the game that ended up as the most memorable of the 2004 NCAA Tournament isn't necessary. What mattered more for Martelli and his staff was landing a solid recruiting class over the summer. The first sign that Saint Joseph's is benefiting from their run came in the last six weeks. Saint Joseph's landed every player it targeted, getting 6-foot-9 center Ahmad Nivins (St. Anthony HS/Jersey City, N.J.), 6-8 Alvin Mofunanya (Englewood School/N.J.), 6-4 Edwin Lashley (St. Thomas More/Conn.) and 6-5 Jordan Fowler (Montclair HS/N.J.).
Step two is going to be a lot tougher.
Saint Joe's must try to make a run at the tournament -- without Nelson, West and Barley.
Although it's just a snapshot, the Hawks will have a hard time creating mismatches the way they did when their speed and overall production at guard caused fits for opponents.
Carroll (10.1 ppg, 45.8 percent on 3s) and Chet Stachitas (6.5 ppg, 43.9 percent on 3s) got their shots because teams focused on Nelson and West. That isn't likely to happen when junior point guard Dwayne Lee (out with a fractured wrist for a few more weeks) or freshman guard Abdulai Jalloh have the ball.
"That's a big concern,'' Martelli said. "We're going to have plays this year. In the past, we would just dribble at people.''
Carroll said the offense was pretty simple a year ago. The Hawks got the ball to Nelson or West and "let them do their thing.'' Carroll said "anybody can have a big night for us'' this season.
Lee has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, knowing that no one expects him to come close to replacing Nelson. But he looks at it like this: He backed up Nelson for two seasons and played against him and Barley in practice. So why shouldn't he be able to take his turn in the spotlight?
"It was Jameer's and Delonte's team, but now it starts with me running the team,'' Lee said. "My time is now after two years of experience. I feel like I'm ready to have that responsibility. I've been behind Jameer and I've done nothing but learn. I'm ready.''
Stachitas takes a similar approach. He said he learned plenty from guarding West in practice, especially how to get open. He'll have to do that often since teams likely will blanket him and Carroll, forcing them to put the ball on the floor to get an open look or move quickly off a screen.
"We had a comfort zone the past three years with Jameer running the team,'' Carroll said. "It will be a major change when practice starts, but when the first game comes around at Kansas, I know we'll be playing with confidence behind Dwayne Lee.''
The key will be whether the big men have shown signs of significant improvement and whether the Hawks can get substantial contributions from the never shy Jalloh, redshirt freshman wing and not-as-assertive Rob Ferguson, and the slender Euro-like shooting forward Pat Calathes.
But the big men could be a difference. Senior John Bryant, the elder statesmen of the bunch and a grad student in the business school, and juniors Dwayne Jones and Dave Mallon (2.2 ppg, 1.6 rpg) all spoke about how much they improved. Well, that's still a question worth debating.
Bryant (3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Jones (6.4 ppg, 7 rpg) are what they are, which is serviceable big men who don't make many mistakes but still struggle to score at times in the low post. Mallon, who has had foot problems for a year, finally feels fine and could help the Hawks if he can stay on the court longer and make mid-range shots and putbacks.
|“||We're going to be a little bit better because they (the players) think they're better. In order to be a great program, you have to be able to sustain it. There's no question that we took massive hits in talent when those three guys left. But they left us in a good place. We just have to live up to the standard of play we have here. ”|
|— St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli|
"The ball will be in their hands more,'' Carroll said. "It's not that they couldn't score. They didn't have the opportunity.''
But how much have they really improved?
"Not much,'' Martelli said. "But they have improved their confidence.''
Martelli hasn't pushed the idea of the program in the preseason. He said the players have grasped the idea that the team's legacy is tied to whether or not they can maintain the high level of excellence.
Bryant said they are all winners. He was on three NCAA teams in the past four seasons (he redshirted his freshman year when the Hawks lost to Stanford in a memorable second-round game). He was there when the Hawks floundered with a senior-laden team in 2002 and ended up in the NIT. But he was also a part, like Carroll and Jones, on the Hawks' teams that lost to Auburn in a thrilling NCAA first-round game in 2003 and then during the Elite Eight run last March.
"We're going to be a little bit better because they (the players) think they're better,'' Martelli said. "In order to be a great program, you have to be able to sustain it. There's no question that we took massive hits in talent when those three guys left. But they left us in a good place. We just have to live up to the standard of play we have here.''
The Atlantic 10 should be down this season after getting four bids a year ago. George Washington and Xavier should be the class of the league. The unknowns are how good Saint Joseph's, UMass, Temple, Richmond, Rhode Island and Dayton will be come February. But the league likely has two NCAA teams in GW and Xavier, barring a collapse by either.
The Hawks open with Kansas. The rest of the non-conference schedule is certainly manageable to give them enough wins to be in a position for an NCAA run if they can win or finish in second in the A-10 East. The toughest games following Kansas are at Ohio State and at Old Dominion in addition to the Big Five games against Drexel and Villanova. But the realistic goal this season is to get an NCAA bid, not one in the Final Four.
Had West not left early for the NBA, then the Hawks would likely be a lock for an NCAA bid since he would have commanded similar defensive attention and freed up Carroll and Stachitas even more. Now the onus is on Lee and Jalloh to demand that type of attention. We won't know if it's possible until after January.
"You have to set your goals to be realistic,'' Carroll said. "If we start winning games at the beginning of the season, then we can set them higher and higher. But it's not going to be anti-climatic for us.''
"We're a bunch of winners, and that's all we've done since we've been here,'' Bryant said. "We're not cocky, but we're confident.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.
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