St. Joseph's making a good case for the NCAA tournament

St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli: "Our fate is going to be determined on how we play on the road," he said after the Hawks improved to 17-7.    
St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli: "Our fate is going to be determined on how we play on the road," he said after the Hawks improved to 17-7.     (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 17, 2014

The eminent bracketologist Joe Lunardi just spent a couple of days in Indianapolis as part of a media mock NCAA selection committee that went through the whole process of picking a field for March Madness.

That's kind of funny since Lunardi basically does that every day after creating his own, "only in America" industry as ESPN's house bracketologist.

The most interesting part of the Indianapolis exercise was how it marked the St. Joseph's Hawks as the very definition of a bubble team. Lunardi said Friday's mock selection came down to eight schools for the last four spots. Given that he also draws a paycheck from St. Joe's, Lunardi really does bend over backward not to show favoritism in his bracketology.

"I voted them fifth out of eight," Lunardi said before working Saturday as the Hawks' radio color commentator.

The mock committee as a whole voted the Hawks fourth - the last team in. Until the moderators threw a wrinkle in, adding a Sunday upset in the Big Ten tournament. St. Joe's suddenly went from last team in to first team out.

All that was before the real Hawks showed up Saturday morning at Tom Gola Arena, which has been a test for top Atlantic Ten teams this season, if not home to a repeat of La Salle's terrific 2012-13 season.

On Saturday, St. Joe's impressively passed this test, grabbing an early lead, withstanding multiple Explorers runs, and getting out of there with a 75-64 victory.

Befitting a bubble team, the Hawks have given the selection committee reasons to take them and reasons to leave them out, so their status could vacillate right to Selection Sunday, as it did for La Salle last March.

"Our fate is going to be determined on how we play on the road," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said after his team improved to 17-7 overall and 7-3 in the A-10.

Even within the Hawks camp, within the locker room, and surely within the fan base, there's a sense of about time in terms of this group of players coming together. There's no doubt it has happened, though. And it's not too late.

Martelli said his seniors have been "a special group" since first getting together in the summer before a trip to Italy. Every coach of every team having some success seems to point to good chemistry, but there's usually something to it, and little doubt that intangibles play a factor.

"I think they just play harder," La Salle point guard Tyreek Duren said when asked why St. Joe's is better this season than last.

Along the same lines, La Salle lost only one starter, Ramon Galloway, from last year's Sweet 16 team, but Explorers coach John Giannini said he is stunned by the difference. He kept saying he has great kids on his team, with great attitudes, but also talked about how this year's team lacks "energy and passion."

A laid-back team is rarely a winning team, and La Salle is 12-12, and 4-6 in the A-10.

If anything, St. Joe's forward Halil Kanacevic had to dial back the passion from past seasons. That he's been able to do it, and really show off his jack-of-all-trades skills, is a huge reason St. Joe's has gone 13-3 since getting blown out of its own gym by Villanova in early December.

All sorts of other factors played in Saturday. DeAndre' Bembry did a superb job of guarding Duren, who had dominated the Hawks a year ago at the Palestra. Bembry also scored 16 points of his own after halftime. Every Hawks starter scored in double figures and each grabbed at least three defensive rebounds.

The Hawks big men also won the inside battle as the Explorers' guys were saddled early with foul trouble.

Afterward, Giannini also lauded the "great chemistry" of St. Joe's. Where does that take the Hawks? There are six games left to find out, including three on the road, and then a trip to Brooklyn for the A-10 tournament, before the real selection committee shows up in that same room in Indianapolis.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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