St. Joe's No. 1 in Atlantic 10, Explorers, Owls in mix

Temple coach Fran Dunphy discusses his team at Atlantic 10 Media Day.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy discusses his team at Atlantic 10 Media Day. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 05, 2012

NEW YORK - Saint Joseph's won 20 games last season and lost in the first round of the NIT at home. La Salle won 21 games and lost in the first round of the NIT at home. The Hawks have everybody back. The Explorers have four starters back and a very good replacement for the fifth starter waiting in the wings. St. Joe's is picked first in the Atlantic 10's preseason poll, La Salle seventh.

What's up with that?

Perception and recent history.

Phil Martelli (320 wins) has won more games than any coach in SJU history. His teams have been regulars in the postseason, with several deep NCAA and NIT runs.

Last season ended with La Salle's first postseason in 20 years.

There is a substantial gap in facilities and fan interest between the two schools. At this moment, there is no discernible gap in talent.

But some school was going to be picked first. It was revealed Thursday morning at the A-10's media day that it was SJU (434 total points, 11 first-place votes), just barely over Saint Louis (432 points, 10 first-place votes). Four other schools, including Temple, received first-place votes.

So what did the SJU coach think when he got the handout with the Hawks at the top?

"When I was handed the sheet, I didn't really have a reaction," Martelli said, while sitting in the suite level of the brand new Barclays Center, located at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. "I just felt that it would be further fuel for our passionate fans. We're in a situation where we sold out an allotment of student season tickets in 4 or 5 days. We put an additional allotment online [Wednesday]. They sold out in 3 minutes . . . When I saw the selection, I was neither surprised nor startled. The bigger thing is that there are six teams that got votes for first place. I think there is arguably a couple more that could have gotten votes or should have gotten votes."

One of those teams is certainly La Salle. Like Martelli, coach John Giannini is not backing off his team. He likes it and is not afraid to say it.

"It's just not that there's proven players coming back and should be good," Giannini said. "I think you can count on this group. They play good basketball. They want to win. I think that the optimism is well placed.

"The only caution at this Media Day is that there is going to be a ninth or 10th place team here that's going to be very good. We're really going to do everything in our power to make sure that's not us."

Earl Pettis is gone, but Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland (Bartram High scoring machine) will step into that wing role after the first seven games.

La Salle did not lose a single game by double digits last season. SJU lost one. Turn some of those close losses into wins and then you really have something.

"We all run with numbers," Martelli said. "Well, here's our number. In our 14 losses last year, we led in the second half 11 times."

It all just has to be "sharper" the coach said.

Those numbers suggest the Hawks could have won 25 games and made the NCAA Tournament. There were games when they looked like an NCAA team, moments in other games when they did not, something that does happen to teams without seniors. This year, SJU has one senior, its point guard Tay Jones.

La Salle similarly has just one senior in its top seven, Ramon Galloway. And if young sophomore big man Steve Zack has improved as much as his coach believes, Giannini will have options he did not have last season when he played four guards just about all the time, surrounding freshman big man Jerrell Wright. Zack, the coach said, is the most improved player in the program.

"It's not even close," Giannini said. "He's improved in every area, but the most dramatic thing is how different he is physically. When we do our preseason conditioning, we do 10 sprints a day with the times getting more difficult as the fall goes on. Last year, Steve would make two or three out of 10. The only guys who have been perfect this year, not missing one sprint, are Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills and Steve Zack. The difference is so extreme it's almost hard to believe, but we see it every day. This kid has just worked himself into incredible shape."

Midway through the league season, La Salle was in first place. They faded a bit late, perhaps due to those guards having to play so many minutes each game. That may be less of an issue this season.

The Barclays Center just opened last Friday with the first of eight Jay-Z concerts in barely a week's time. The A-10 Tournament will come to Brooklyn in March. It is a spectacular venue. How the Explorers and Hawks will be playing in mid-March is, at best, a guess. But nobody doubts the possibilities.

"If our execution is to the highest level, then we can match some of these expectations," Martelli said. "The only expectation that we have to play to is our own, the players' expectation and my expectation."

By the way, La Salle and St. Joe's play Saturday Feb. 16 at the Palestra on NBC Sports Network, a national televised showcase for teams that have national ambitions.

"You have to talk about the NCAA Tournament," Giannini said. "It's just what everyone wants. It's the goal of your players, the goal of your fans and, frankly, it's the goal of coaches. Now, we're in better position than we've been in the past, but that should always be your goal. Setting your sights lower isn't as exciting to players . . . I would be thrilled if I could give my players that experience and La Salle that experience."

All-League teams

Temple's Khalif Wyatt was selected to the preseason first team all-league. SJU's Langston Galloway and Tay Jones were named to the second team, along with La Salle's Ramon Galloway. The Hawks' C.J. Aiken and Halil Kanacevic were named to the third team.

There are always debatable omissions to the teams. La Salle point guard Tyreek Duren not making any of the teams is not really debatable. It is just wrong.


Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com.

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