St. Joes, virtual NCAA Tournament locks, saw success come out of nowhere

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Whoever saw this coming raise your hands?

Chances are —if they’re being honest with themselves — not even Phil Martelli or his players would admit they could ever have imagined the Saint Joseph’s Hawks having this kind of season. Coming off a 13-18 year, SJU’s third losing season in six years, with virtually the same team back, there was no reason to expect much.

So then explain how are the Hawks 24-5, tied for first place in the Atlantic 10 and a virtual lock for an NCAA at large berth? While senior forward Isaiah Miles has suddenly come of age and star junior DeAndre’ Bembry only gets better, the rest of this team still seems rather ordinary.

Just don’t tell that to their opponents.

“It’s definitely a big change,” said Miles, who leads the Hawks in scoring at 17.9 per game, after averaging just 10.7 last year. “The atmosphere’s different from last year.Last year everyone was down.Now it’s good vibes, Everyone’s happy, excited, confident. There’s just a different feel throughout the locker room and throughout the school.”

If nobodynoticed — mainly because of what Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats are doing some 10 miles away on the Main Line — that’s their loss.

“I personally don’t care about any of the recognition,” said Martelli, whose next win — which he hopes comes Wednesday in Rochester, NY vs. St. Bonaventure— will be No. 400 in his 21-year career. “As long as those guys in the room—the players themselves—are enjoying the experience and are pleased with what they’re doing but not satisfied.This is really a special group and we’re having a special year, but they’re giving it to each other. If other people would like to be involved or would like to know more, fine.But I think what Villanova is doing is worth the all attention they’re getting–if not more. As long as these (SJU) players and their families are pleased, that’s more than enough recognition.We’re gonna get everything we earn in the next couple of weeks.”

That’s when the Hawks hope to make a name for themselves in the Tournament.

“We’re cool with not getting any recognition,”Bembry said after a win Sunday,“but we’re winning.I’m just happy a lot of guys who were on the team last year have when we were losing are now a part of winning.Here we are battling for first place in the Atlantic 10. It’s just been a team effort. Everybody improved, not just me.”

The result has been Martelli’s ninth 20-win season on Hawk Hill, with one more win his fourth with at least 25 or more. The last one was that memorable 30-2 2004 SJU squad — which briefly made it to No. 1 —with Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and Dwayne Jones,, who all went on to the NBA. That’s one difference Martelli sees between them and ‘Nova.

“Here’s what everybody has missed about Jay Wright,” said Martelli when asked to compare. “Jay Wright has done this for years without pros. That’s phenomenal.I had three pros on that team and that was a national story. The fact they got to No. 1, I think of as a continuation of brilliant, brilliant basketball.”

Speaking of brilliant basketball even Martelli admits getting to 400 is worth commemorating.

“It will be pretty cool because 400 —with it being 25 wins this year—that combination is special,” said Martelli, who wasn’t particularly pleased with his team’s ball-handling and foul shooting in this one, concerned that could wind up biting them down the road if not corrected. “I’ll think a lot about my family and what they’ve sacrificed, but also what we’ve gotten.

“I’m not gonna say it’s meaningless. It’s not meaningless. It’s a significant number.”

Especially considering the unlikely way this season has played out for Saint Joseph’s. A season in which to borrow from a certain rental car company, the Hawks may only be the No. 2 team in the city —but they try harder.

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