Martelli has his mojo back

Posted: March 19, 2014

'THERE WAS a stretch of time after Jameer that I didn't like myself," Phil Martelli was saying in his office late yesterday afternoon. An endorphin-absorbed Sunday that had spilled into a foodless evening and then a sleepless night had morphed the coach into the kind of truth-spilling interviewee that detectives only dream about.

He was happy one moment, pensive the next, even a bit sad after that. He was exhausted mostly, but not in the way he has spent too much of the time between the time Jameer Nelson finished and now being exhausted.

This was the exhaustion from a job well done. Not the exhaustion from a job under siege.

"I thought I was hard to play for," he continued. "I was too animated. I was too quick with the hook. And really, my wife would talk to me about it. And I would be like, 'But I want this guy to be great.' And she'd say, 'Yeah, but your want may not fit his need.' "

And so it went for the remainder of the last decade and into this one as well. Martelli assembled more good teams than bad ones, but each one seemed to blow its Achilles' at the worst possible time. His teams were too often deemed underachievers - or worse, devoid of mettle. His handling of them, his adjustments, all fed into his self-perception, his self-doubt.

And as the frustration of the faithful grew, so did the doubts about Martelli's coaching acumen. It is a recurring theme in this town teeming with Big 5 alums, one experienced by Dr. John Giannini until his La Salle team made its Sweet 16 run last year, one experienced by Villanova's Jay Wright as recently as last year.

They lost their edge. They were never good coaches to begin with. They got lucky with recruits. Yada, yada, yada.

"I hate it," Halil Kanacevic, one of Martelli's current players, was saying yesterday. "It's nonsense. People that really know basketball, they know what they see on the court. People who don't know, want to go on the Internet, start blasting people, blasting coach. I could care less about those people. I care about those people in the locker room. Because they're there every day with me fighting."

This may sound strange to anyone who got to know this team through its unlikely run to the A-10 championship over the weekend. Wasn't he the guy going jaw-to-jaw with Martelli during a timeout? Just last season, Kanacevic's double-middle-fingered salute to Villanova fans was cited by some as evidence that St. Joe's needed a culture change, and fast.

This was his loyal sword?

But anyone familiar with St. Joe's this season, or even during the turbulent last one, understands. Kanacevic is not just a sword, he is, in Martelli's words, "the linchpin" to their unlikely recovery from a 4-4 start, and their equally unlikely roll to the A-10 Tournament title over the weekend. Stubborn, feisty and sometimes painfully honest, he is not unlike the coach he embroils and embraces, even if Martelli doesn't see it that way.

"I've always seen myself as conciliatory," said the coach, and no, he wasn't kidding.

"Me and coach have a very unique relationship," said Kanacevic. "I grew up with a lot of older people. What I learned from them is that you're usually in it together, whoever is around you. You have your bad days and you have your good days, but at the end of the day, I yell at you, you yell at me, I'm still with you 100 percent. It doesn't matter how I'm feeling toward you. I may hate you for the moment, but I've still got your back."

"He's just so unique," said the coach. "I use the term, 'He's a really good kid.' Well he's not a kid. He's not a kid to the world. He is not a kid. And this team could have gone through sheepishly. You're 4-4, losing at Temple and having been annihilated by Villanova. Sheep go like this: I don't want to get hit anymore, I don't want to get whipped. So what time's practice tomorrow?"

What we didn't see Sunday, said the coach, was the ensuing stoppage, when Martelli again prodded his team and this time, his senior linchpin banged his coach's thigh and said, "We've got this, coach."

There have been several moments like that this season, starting with that second-half surge against Drexel in December that shook off the self-pity emanating from the Villanova blowout, and began a stretch in which the Hawks won 17 of the next 20. Kanacevic scored 27 points in that game, because it was needed, and he scored 26 points in Saturday's semifinal against St. Bonaventure because that was needed, too.

Kanacevic's unselfish approach has led to one of the more startling career stat sheets in recent college basketball - and Big 5 - history. He has scored 1,151 points, grabbed 1,020 rebounds, been credited with 402 assists and blocked 279 shots. And yet none of those numbers, or even the whole, begins to explain what he has done for St. Joe's since transferring from Hofstra - or more to the point, Martelli.

There's no one talking about his job anymore. Philmustgo.com was disabled yesterday, a day after posting congratulations and "In Phil We Trust." St. Joe's plays an exhausting system that optimizes its talent and leans on the intelligence of its players, a system that requires someone who can both coach and convince.

"I think coaches in college basketball get way too much credit and we take way too much blame," said Martelli. "But there were a number of times throughout the night that I just stopped and said, 'I can't believe what these kids just did.' Because that's the focus. What they did."


On Twitter: @samdonnellon

philly.com/SamDonnellon

Email: donnels@phillynews.com

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