A trying time for Martelli

Posted: February 17, 2011

The sigh is seemingly endless. Asked a simple question - How are you holding up? - Phil Martelli ticked through a list as if he were speaking to his physician. Physically? Fine. Emotionally? Fine. Alert. Motivated.

Pause.

Pause.

Pause.

"I'm fine," Martelli said, not sounding all that convincing, probably even to himself.

All is not fine on Hawk Hill this season, Martelli's 16th and perhaps most challenging at St. Joseph's. The Hawks are incredibly young, with three freshmen and a sophomore joining senior Idris Hilliard in the starting lineup, and with that youth comes mistakes. It takes time for players to adjust to the college game, to understand that how you practice affects how you play in games, that scouting reports aren't homework but a necessary piece of the preparation.

Because Martelli has to rely on younger players, for whatever reason, he has to live with the results: The Hawks are 7-18 overall and 2-9 in the Atlantic Ten Conference after getting beaten, 74-54, Wednesday night by 24th-ranked Xavier at Hagan Arena. They have five games remaining, all but one against teams with winning records, and they are in jeopardy of missing the A-10 tournament for the first time.

St. Joe's fans who had grown accustomed to winning during the magical 2003-04 season, when the Hawks were the darlings of college basketball, running the table to an undefeated regular season, are impatient now. Read the message boards, and anonymous posters are calling for Martelli's job.

Sixteen years, 501 games, five NCAA tournament appearances, one sweet run to the Elite Eight, and two National Invitation Tournament championship games, and now he is under fire for a couple of down years.

Over the last two seasons, the Hawks are 18-38 overall, 7-20 in the A-10.

So, fine? No, Martelli is not exactly fine.

He has heard all the criticism. That he is living off past accomplishments. That his recruiting has lagged. That the players have tuned him out. That his plan, which brought Jameer Nelson and Delonte West to St. Joe's and produced such great results, has gone awry.

Rubbish, Martelli says.

"I don't think the plan went awry," Martelli said, sitting at the conference room table in the pristine men's basketball office at the Ramsay Basketball Center off City Avenue. "I think this is part of a process. I wish it wasn't painful, but it's part of a process that we get older, that we get stronger, that we get smarter, that we get better. All of those things are part of this."

Martelli readily admits that the program did not get the bounce he expected after the undefeated season. He said he thought that he had a couple of recruits locked up, only to lose them at the end.

Other players have not worked out. Jawan Carter stayed for one season (2007), then went to Delaware, and D.J. Rivera lasted only two (2007 and '08).

It is also undeniable that Fran Dunphy's move from Penn to Temple made it harder for Martelli to lure local kids to St. Joe's. While Dunphy has eight players from the Philadelphia area on his roster, including three starters and three other reserves who play meaningful minutes, Martelli has two - C.J. Aiken from Conshohocken and Daryus Quarles from Paulsboro.

Martelli said that he has noticed a trend of local players leaving the area for opportunities to play in the bigger conferences, such as the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference, a trend that he thinks is "cyclical." But that does not explain Dunphy's success recruiting locally.

With Hagan Arena and the Ramsay Basketball Center, St. Joseph's certainly has the facilities to lure local talent. The university made that commitment.

Against a much bigger Xavier team, St. Joe's showed flashes of what it could become. In the first half, the Hawks hit shots, hung with the Musketeers on the boards, and took an 18-13 lead on Hilliard's fourth basket of the game. But they also fouled a Xavier jump shooter with 0.9 seconds to play in the half and walked into intermission trailing by 34-27.

Though Martelli is not into moral victories these days, as tough as this season has been - including a winless January - seeing glimmers of progress, such as his players' effort against a veteran Xavier team, should be appreciated.

"This is the deep end of the pool," Martelli conceded about Xavier.

Before the game, Martelli got a dose of reality. A year and a day after becoming paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident, Lenny Martelli (no relation) walked with the coach onto the court two minutes before tip-off, using only a pair of canes. It was the culmination of a year of rehabilitation, with Phil Martelli offering support and encouragement to Lenny, a 16-year-old junior at Pope John Paul II High in Royersford, along the way.

Today, Martelli will get down to the business of preparing for a rematch with Temple on Sunday. One day at a time. Teach, and build, and try to get better.

Martelli says that coaching basketball is his passion. But as this season plays out, the passion is starting to feel like a job. He is trying to wipe that feeling away, but it is hard.

And that means things are definitely not fine.


Contact columnist Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AshleyMFox.

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