With peerless Jameer Nelson calling the shots, Saint Joseph's has passed and pressed to its best start ever
Last Saturday, after Saint Joseph's had dispatched George Washington 90-81 at Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse in Philadelphia, All-America point guard Jameer Nelson, who had scored a game-high 29 points, was busy signing his usual load of postgame autographs. "Everybody kept telling me how much they liked the way I smiled during the game," said Nelson, a 5'11" senior. "Somebody told me the refs were even smiling with me. This is definitely the most fun I've ever had playing basketball."
The grins have been as ceaseless as the mascot's wing flapping on Hawk Hill as No. 9 Saint Joseph's improved to 11-0 with the win over GW, the best start in school history. (On Monday, the Hawks were No. 1 in the RPI rankings.) Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli believes the seeds of success were planted two seasons ago, when the Hawks were highly touted in the preseason but finished a disappointing 19-12 and failed to make the NCAA tournament. "The whole season was just joyless," Martelli says. "So I told the team, from now on I want to leave practice every day with a smile on my face, no matter what."
Besides emphasizing the joy of competing, Martelli also installed an up-tempo style that capitalizes on Saint Joseph's strengths. On defense the Hawks apply full-court pressure to instigate a frenetic pace. It has paid off: At week's end they had forced 67 more turnovers than they had committed. On offense, Saint Joseph's boasts arguably the best perimeter group in the nation—Nelson, 6'4" junior Delonte West, 6'5" junior Pat Carroll and 6'1" senior Tyrone Barley. The seasoned quartet zips the ball around the floor unselfishly and each is free to fire at will. "Sharing the ball gets you good shots, but to me it goes deeper than that," Martelli says. "If players are sharing the ball, that means they respect and enjoy playing with each other."
First among equals, Nelson was averaging 19.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.64 steals at week's end, establishing his credentials as an early favorite for national player of the year. But he wasn't alone. West was averaging 18.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.91 steals. Meanwhile, 6'11" sophomore center Dwayne Jones has become a dominating shot blocker (2.36 a game) and went for a career-high 23 points against George Washington.
But credit Nelson for a lot of the smiles around campus these days. "He's become a comedian, which is weird because he never really talked his first two years here," says Barley. Behind the grin, though, is grit. "We learned two years ago that you can never take anything for granted," says Nelson. "We know we have the opportunity to accomplish something amazing, and it's important that we cherish every moment."
Anatomy of a Comeback
How Duke Exposed UConn
You have to go back 30 years to find a regular-season game of similar significance that featured a comeback as stirring as the one produced by then No. 4 Duke in its 68-67 upset of No. 1 Connecticut last Saturday. On Jan. 19, 1974, Notre Dame's Dwight Clay capped a 12-0 Fighting Irish run in the final 3:32 with a game-winning jump shot to sink UCLA 71-70, ending the Bruins' 88-game win streak. That, however, was a home game for the Irish. Duke's win, during which it trailed by as many as 20 points and which was capped by 6-foot sophomore guard Jessica Foley's buzzer-beating three-pointer, took place at the Hartford Civic Center and it ended the Huskies' homecourt win streak at 69, one shy of a new NCAA record. Blue Devils guard Alana Beard, who scored 20 of her game-high 21 points in the second half, spoke for all her teammates when she said, "This has to be the greatest game I have ever been a part of."
History aside, the rally by Duke (which became No. 1 on Monday) revealed some potentially fatal flaws in UConn's bid for a third straight national championship. Trailing 59-44 with 6:56 to play, the Blue Devils relied on a 1-2-2 full-court trapping defense to force 10 turnovers, six of which were committed by UConn guards Barbara Turner and Maria Conlon. Afterward, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said flatly, "Our guard situation is what it is," and he added, "We may have made a mistake in recruiting." Equally troubling for UConn is that its rotation consists of only six players, compared to Duke's seven. "I've learned that you can teach with both wins and losses," Auriemma said. "Today, we basically got exposed for some things that we are not very good at."
Catamount Out of the Bag
Ignored Martin Evens the Score