Commentary

Saint Joseph's is so much more than the 2004 perfect regular season

Originally Published: November 13, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

For a handful of lucky programs, "One Shining Moment" is more than just a song. It's an identity forged from the grandest of all March moments: an NCAA Tournament upset. It's how the nation is introduced to schools like Hampton and Northwestern State for two dizzying days.

A select few, like Kent State (2002 Elite Eight) and George Mason (2006 Final Four), take things a step (or three) further and have become identifiable by miracle runs that belie their recent history of NCAA Tournament success.

But what if a program once accomplished something even grander, something that was more than a decade in the making, something that was so extraordinary that it still overshadows all the good things that happened around it?

Well, then you'd be Saint Joseph's.

For the past seven seasons, the Hawks have been winning with regularity. Before last season's "down" year, an 18-14 campaign, the Hawks had been to six straight postseasons while compiling a total of 141 wins and an average RPI of a tick under 40.

Yet, bring up Saint Joe's, which faces Syracuse in a second-round NIT Season Tip-Off game Tuesday night (ESPN, 7 ET), and chances are you'll only hear about the Hawks' perfect regular season in 2003-04 -- the first one in the sport since UNLV in 1991.

"It's the season that everyone remembers, that no one will forget, that everyone's talking about," said current Hawks junior Ahmad Nivins, who was lured to the Philadelphia school in part because of that campaign. "… We were successful with or without that season. But that season was so spectacular, it's hard to ignore it."

Jameer Nelson
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty ImagesSince Jameer Nelson left Saint Joseph's in 2004, the program hasn't been back to the NCAA Tournament.

To the contrary, it seems that everything else the program has accomplished under Phil Martelli -- which includes a Sweet 16 (in 1997) and an NIT finals appearance (in 2005) -- gets washed away.

"On a national level with other coaches, we get [respect]," Martelli said. "But I don't think that the basketball fan gets it. I think they think we flashed onto the scene that one year and now we've gone away."

It's not unreasonable to have that impression. Since NBA first-rounders Jameer Nelson and Delonte West left after that magical season, the Hawks haven't even qualified for the NCAAs. But given what they have accomplished, it's an inaccurate impression. And, given the school's understated accoutrements, it probably undersells the job Martelli has done in his 12-plus years in charge.

Saint Joe's doesn't have many of the bells and whistles you would expect at an upper-echelon program. There's no cavernous, modern arena. While a capital improvement project underway will create new locker rooms and meeting space adjacent to cozy 3,200-seat Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, it will only add another 1,000 seats to the gym. The Hawks' 2006 basketball budget, according to the U.S. Department of Education, was around $2.5 million (84th in Division I). There's no BCS football money to line the coffers; the school doesn't even field a football team.

It might be a small-school setting, but Philadelphia is anything but a small city for college hoops. Saint Joe's is forced to fight for attention with five other Division I teams in the area, two of which (Temple and Villanova) also have crafted Elite Eight runs within the past seven seasons and often have bigger-name players. Martelli views that competition as a positive.

"I certainly think not being comfortable is a good thing, not only for the basketball program at Saint Joseph's and the athletic department at Saint Joseph's, but also for the school," Martelli said. "It's good to carry that little chip [on your shoulder]. We're going to scratch out our niche. We don't want you to give us anything. We want to earn everything you do give us."

Maybe to help maintain that chip, Martelli is not above pointing out to his players how much local attention other schools and players get.

"You'll always have the opportunity to measure yourself, whether it be an offseason workout, a summer league," said Martelli, who's now in his 23rd season with the program. "I hope that the players are always doing this, measuring themselves by the media coverage that Scottie Reynolds gets at Villanova or Dionte Christmas gets at Temple. I do think that's part of the war in Philadelphia."

And the war in Philadelphia is a large part of what makes Saint Joseph's. Martelli uses the Big 5 city series games and the famed Palestra, which hosts a number of the games, as a recruiting tool. The games are as hotly contested as those in any actual conference in the country. As much as any league or NCAA Tournament accomplishments, honor in the city is forged by what teams do against their neighbors. Speak to people around Philly and you'll quickly find out the Hawks have earned their Brotherly stripes.

"They're very well respected here and our games have been great games and it's a great rivalry," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of the teams' series, dubbed the Holy War. "I wouldn't say those [RPI] numbers would be a surprise to us, because we're seven miles away and get to see each other all the time."

So why don't the Hawks get corresponding national love? The absences from the past three NCAA Tournaments play a role. Saint Joe's also hasn't helped itself by faltering repeatedly in the Atlantic 10 tournament, when the national lights shine brightly. The Hawks haven't won the event since 1997. They lost in the final in both 2005 and '06 and were blown out by Xavier in the '04 quarterfinals to end the perfect run. This in a league that lacks the cachet of a BCS conference and lately has struggled just to get multiple teams into the NCAAs.

"[The league has] only been putting two, three teams in the postseason every year, so you get hurt by that, the perception that you might have a good program but you're not playing in a very good conference right now," said Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, a former player at Saint Joseph's who faces similar struggles in getting his CAA-contending Dragons some deserved pub. "I think that's hurting them more than anything else."

This season, the A-10 looks poised for a rebound and so, too, do the Hawks. Led by Nivins and skilled senior forward Pat Calathes, the older brother of highly touted Florida freshman Nick Calathes, Saint Joe's has two reliable scorers to guide a core of underclassmen who gained much experience last season. The pair combined for 39 points and 17 rebounds in the Hawks' season-opening 20-point win over Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday night in the first round of the event. Throw in Iowa State transfer Tasheed Carr, who had 12 assists in his Hawks debut, and expectations might not be back at 2004 levels, but they are raised nonetheless.

"This year, if we do what we're planning on doing and what I think we can do, I think that will set us apart and make us one of the mid-major programs that's always top-20, top-25 in the country," Calathes said.

A road win over the Orange to earn a trip to New York City would be a good first step.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM