Nelson makes Saint Joseph's special

Originally Published: December 9, 2003
By Michael Vega | Special to ESPN.com

June 19, 2003. It was a day Saint Joseph's basketball fans everywhere celebrated.

It's the date guard Jameer Nelson withdrew from the NBA draft and returned to school for his senior season, a fortuitous decision that caused everyone on Hawk Hill to rejoice.

No one rejoiced more so than Delonte West, Nelson's 6-foot-4 junior runnin'-and-gunnin' backcourt mate. Nelson's return meant their productive partnership would be preserved for at least one more glorious run together in Phil Martelli's backcourt, one that has been lauded by many experts as perhaps the best duo in the nation.

However, if Nelson had departed Saint Joseph's -- which was quite possible until Nelson's three-day run at the Chicago pre-draft camp convinced him otherwise -- and left West in his contrails as he jetted off to the NBA, it would have been tantamount to Butch leaving Sundance, Batman deserting Robin, Starsky bidding sayonara to Hutch. You get the picture.

So, after a 71-56 victory at Boston University, West was asked how happy he was to have Nelson back. His predictable response was as enthusiastic as it was emphatic.

Jameer Nelson
Jameer Nelson is a scorer who happens to assists others on the court.

"Oooohh, MAN!" said West, with an unmistakable sound of immense relief in his voice. "You know I've got to credit almost half my baskets to him. Why wouldn't you want the best point guard to get you the ball? That's a scorer's dream, to have a point guard who can get you the ball."

As he continued to dress amid the happy banter of the visitors' locker room at Case Gym, West lowered his voice and said, solemnly, "On a personal level, I was happy that he came back."

So, too, was Nelson.

"Oh, I definitely would've missed all this," Nelson said, surveying the locker room scene. "Coming back was the best decision I ever made in my life. It was a gut decision and I always go with my gut."

So what did his gut tell him? "That I was the worst basketball player in college basketball," he said, breaking into a laugh.

"Nah, I'm just joking. It just told me that one more year would do me good to become a better basketball player. I wanted to stay here anyway because I had things I wanted to accomplish with my team."

Nelson, an energetic 6-foot, 190-pound senior from Chester, Pa., who thrice this season has already earned A-10 co-player of the week honors, would like nothing more than to lead the Hawks on a deep postseason run in the NCAA Tournament, certainly deeper than last year's abortive attempt that ended with an overtime first-round loss to Auburn, 65-63.

Tuesday afternoon, Nelson wasn't at his best, but West was in scoring 27 points and leading the Hawks past Boston College, 67-57. Nelson missed 11 of his first 12 shots, but still finished with 13 points and a few clutch baskets late as Saint Joseph's (No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP) improve to 6-0 with a victory over previously unbeaten and unranked Boston College (6-1) at The Palestra in Philadelphia.

"Every team we play has a different strategy on him," said West, who suffered a stress fracture in his right fibula that hampered him in his last eight games last season but has since shown nary a single misstep with his explosive first step. The shooter from Greenbelt, Md., leads Saint Joseph's in scoring at 19.0 points a game.

"But we knew we had guys willing to step up if he left," West said. "But it wouldn't have been the same without having Jameer Nelson on the floor."

Nelson's floor leadership is undeniable.

"He makes good players better," Martelli said. "He plays for one reason -- to win -- and he passes that on to all the other players."

More than that, Nelson has created offensive opportunities for his supporting cast with an even-handed distribution of the ball. He led the Hawks in scoring until Tuesday's shooting woes slipped him behind West at 18.5 ppg. But his seven assists against BC moved Nelson to No. 1 all-time in St. Joe's history with 584 career assists. He leads the A-10 in assists this season with 6.8 per game.

"He's taken a lot of pressure on himself because he knows other teams are going to take shots at him," West said. "By coming back, he put an 'X' on his back. But I think he's doing a good job handling the adversity, distributing the ball, and getting shots all at the same time. I mean, even though guys are still paying attention to him, what makes him so great is that he still gets his shots off."

It's the weighty burden of an All-American point guard, but Nelson is happy to bear it on his shoulders, just as he did the weighty decision to return for his senior season at Saint Joseph's.

"You could see it, how it pulled at him," Martelli said. "There were times he was walking around like an old man, like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. And now, to see him play with such joy, I think that's a big part of him coming back.

"He should enjoy this. He's the best in America and he should enjoy being the best in America."

Games to Watch
Indiana at Notre Dame, Wednesday
The Hoosiers let Missouri off the hook after getting throttled by Wake Forest, while the Irish should have a Chip on their shoulder for this annual rivalry after two straight losses.
Maryland at Florida, Wednesday
Terps get first shot at latest No. 1 team. Florida won at Maryland last season and may be a bit too experienced to let Terps win in Gainesville.
Saint Joseph's at Drexel, Sunday
While not officially a Big Five game, the Hawks will "visit" Palestra to take on Dragons. These games are never easy.
Brown's long winter's night
A winter snowstorm wreaked havoc across the Northeast this past weekend, dumping nearly 30 inches of snow in some sections of New England. It also made for some tough sledding for Brown University on its trip home to Providence after a 66-62 loss at Ohio on Saturday.

Immediately after the game Saturday afternoon, the Bears took a two-hour bus ride from Athens to Columbus, where delays on 1-270 occurred because of a recent spate of sniper shootings. The team, however, made its flight to Charlotte, N.C., arriving in time to make its connection on the last flight out that evening to Providence. It then discovered the flight had been canceled because of the 12 inches of snow that blanketed T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I.

"The exam period was coming up and we thought we had a perfect plan by playing an afternoon game so that we could get the kids back in time for the reading period," Brown coach Glen Miller said. "When we got to Charlotte to make our connection, we wound up getting stuck there without our luggage."

Brown was forced to bunk down for the night in a local hotel with nothing more than the complimentary toiletries provided by the hotel. At 8:30 the next morning, the team departed for Philadelphia, wearing the same clothes they had worn the previous day.

After its 10 a.m arrival in Philadelphia, the team faced a scheduled three-hour layover that instead turned into a 12-hour ordeal when their 1:45 p.m. flight was canceled and the subsequent flights (all delayed) did not have enough seats to accommodate the entire team.

"Fortunately, a lot of guys brought their books and got a lot of work done," Miller said. "Now, if it was me, I probably wouldn't have had any books with me and would've wasted the whole day. But my guys are much better students than I ever was."

The Bears were booked on a 10 p.m. flight, the latest flight out, and arrived back in Providence around midnight, where they were greeted by some 20 inches of snow.

"When the team got back to campus," Miller said. "A bunch of players helped one of our assistant coaches, Chris Sparks, dig his car out."

An addendum to the story: Miller went on a recruiting trip to Canada 48 hours later and found himself back in the Philadelphia Airport, where he had an 1½ hour layover for a connection to Buffalo. This time, however, Miller made it out on time.

Around the East

  • Hofstra picked up a historic victory last week over St. John's with its 81-64 triumph over the Red Storm at Alumni Hall. It was only the second victory for the Pride in 23 meetings with its local Big East rival, which had won the first 19 games before Hofstra snapped its skid against St. John's with an 86-80 victory over the Red Storm in 2000-01.

    And while it seemed to underscore some of the woes that St. John's has experienced this season, it was a moment of sweet redemption for Hofstra and coach Tom Pecora, who endured a horrible 8-21 season last year, one that was pockmarked by suspensions and injuries that led to the wounded Pride missing a combined 103 games.

    All five of Hofstra's starters scored in double figures, led by junior forward Kenny Adeleke and freshman guard Carlos Rivera, who each scored 20 points. Adeleke added 13 rebounds to give him his 25th double-double of his career and first of the season, while Rivera made his fifth career start, becoming the first freshman starter at Hofstra since Speedy Claxton in 1996-97.

  • While Boston was inundated with more than 30 inches of snow, it didn't hamper BC and the University of Massachusetts from staging a white-hot contest in their ninth annual Commonwealth Classic. After losing the first five meetings against UMass, the Eagles retained the Governor's Cup for the fourth time in a row after beating the Minutemen in overtime, 76-75, in a game that was dubbed the "Commonwealth Instant Classic."

    BC freshman Sean Marshall had a career-high 21 points to lead the Eagles, but super sophomore Craig Smith had 19 points and 11 rebounds, and hit the winning free throws with 14.6 seconds left in OT.

  • Charlie Villanueva, Connecticut's ballyhooed 6-10 freshman forward, finally got on the court after sitting out the Huskies' first six games while the school cleared up an eligibility matter with the NCAA. Villanueva came off the bench in UConn's 76-49 rout over Army to score 16 points in 22 minutes. In the game, Emeka Okafor became only the fourth Husky to record a triple-double with 18 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, joining Donyell Marshall, Doron Sheffer and Caron Butler in that distinguished group.

    Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at vega@globe.com.