Hawks confident they Conn prevail

Posted: March 21, 2014

IT WAS LATE morning Tuesday in the Ramsay Center film room at Saint Joseph's. The Atlantic 10 champions were staring at a big screen and their head coach, Phil Martelli, was going over the scouting report for the Hawks' next opponent, Connecticut.

The Sunday celebration in Brooklyn had ceased, a quiet Monday had morphed into the day the team would travel to Buffalo for their 2014 NCAA Tournament game tonight. It was back to basketball.

The coach went over the UConn players and the UConn plays.

"Napier is the real deal," Martelli said of UConn senior point guard Shabazz Napier.

He explained that UConn was 8-7 against postseason teams, the Hawks 8-6. The message was subtle, but clear. We can compete. We can win.

But to compete and win, they had to understand what and who they would be playing. It is one thing to watch a team on television, an entirely different thing to be drilled down on the nuances in a scouting report.

For years, Martelli has used players his teams know from the A-10 to compare in style to players they are about to face. Napier, he said, has the speed of UMass' blur Chaz Williams. Niels Giffey, the tall shooter from Germany who is an incredible 53-for-101 (52.5 percent) from three, third best nationally, is like Matthew Wright from St. Bonaventure and Micah Mason from Duquesne, two excellent shooters.

When you think Amida Brimah, the 7-footer from Ghana who has 85 blocks in just 16 minutes per game, Martelli told them to imagine, "[Youssou] Ndoye's [St. Bonaventure] body on [former Hawk] C.J. Aiken's game," a combination of a very big man with supreme shot-blocking skills.

One by one, the coach went over the UConn players. And then he showed clips of each so what he told his players would come to life.

It did not take a basketball expert to see that Napier was every bit as good as advertised. He leads his team in scoring (17.4 points), rebounds (5.9 per game), assists (4.9) and steals (1.7). He shoots 39 percent from the arc and 85.9 percent from the line.

As a freshman, Napier was the fourth-leading scorer (7.8 points) on the team Kemba Walker took on that wild ride for 11 games through the Big East Tournament all the way to the 2011 national championship in Houston. In his career, he has scored 1,832 points, 619 assists, 543 rebounds and 236 steals. He can win games by himself.

The good news for the Hawks: They will put a starting lineup on the floor that has scored 5,510 career points, with shooters, rebounders, finishers, passers, versatility, defenders, athleticism and a way to play that has been learned on the floor, in games and in sessions just like the one Tuesday morning.

Martelli explained how the Hawks would be defending generally and specifically. There was talk of "walls" and "gap discipline." Martelli pointed out that UConn held teams to just 38.7 percent shooting, 10th nationally.

"We have to have faith and trust in what we do," he said.

The Huskies shoot an excellent 39 percent from the arc and make more than seven threes per game. The Hawks, Martelli said, must find a way to get UConn below its typical numbers.

"Whatever, however, whomever," Martelli said as he sent his players out to the Hagan Arena court. "It's back to basketball. The other stuff was fun. It's now done."

With that, the players did some fundamental basketball stuff before going over what they had just seen and heard in 4-minute breakdown sessions.

It was the team's first time on the court since they cut down the Nets in Brooklyn and it showed, the coach rating the practice a C+. The idea is to get an A tonight. When the practice ended after some live action, Martelli explained that they would be going to Buffalo to win a two-game tournament.

SJU continued to prepare with yesterday morning's practice at Canisius, the same place where the 2003-04 team practiced the day before its first NCAA game. They then went to the First Niagara Center in late afternoon for a mandatory media session and some shooting on the court where they will play tonight. The preparation is continuous - on the court, on the screen, in their rooms with their scouting reports.

Hawks assistant Dave Duda explained that what UConn does on defense "is hard to simulate," that it is somewhat similar to Saint Louis "with size coming at you."

Temple coach Fran Dunphy saw UConn and its star up close twice this season.

"Napier is just an extraordinary player," Dunphy said. "He makes so much of a difference. He's such a competitor. He's the X-factor for them. I think he's one of the top five players in the country."

So, that is what the A-10 champs are up against.

"We don't want it to end," said Langston Galloway, the third-leading scorer in SJU history. "We want to keep going. Their guards are going to try to take over. We've got to go out and go at their guards, instead of letting them take it to us."

The opponent is serious. So, clearly, is St. Joe's, 20-5 over the last 3 1/2 months.

"Guys are playing together, having each other's backs, no finger pointing," said A-10 Tournament MVP Halil Kanacevic. "Our defense has been really good, staying honest to the game plan."

Like Galloway, Kanacevic wants to keep playing, but he knows there will be an A-10 championship banner going up and staying up in Hagan.

"We cemented a place in history as A-10 champions," Kanacevic said. "It's great for the group, great for coach. We still have games to play. We're confident."

They have a right to be confident. Tonight, their confidence, preparation and execution will be tested against a well-coached, high-quality opponent on the biggest stage in college basketball.

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