February has arrived, and unbeaten seasons are officially serious. In early November all 326 Division I basketball teams were undefeated. At week's end two remained: Stanford—courtesy of last Saturday's buzzer-beating 80-77 win over Arizona—and tiny Saint Joseph's in west Philadelphia. Twenty up and 20 down for both. Stanford has a gorgeous campus, a movie-star-handsome senior guard and a coach with a regal bearing, suitable for Mount Rushmore. St. Joe's has a cramped campus that fronts suburban sprawl, a senior guard built like an 11th-grade fullback and a coach who looks like the guy down the street who gets his newspaper in his pajamas. It's a school with 3,800 undergraduates and a style all its own. Hawks fans are comfortable with their AP ranking and the chant that comes with it: We're Number 3! There's no football at St. Joe's, just fanatical devotion to basketball.
The old-school Jesuit priests on Hawk Hill like to say, " Saint Joseph's is a humble institution with much to be humble about." The on-campus bracketologists almost hyperventilate when talking about the possibility of the Hawks' being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But that could happen, and the primary reason is quiet, earnest senior guard Jameer Nelson, a brick house from nearby Chester, Pa., with a stubbly beard and eight tattoos. Nelson is 5'11" and 190 pounds, but this season he has been the best player in the nation.
St. Joe's plays man-to-man defense, and Nelson will damn near shut you down, whoever you are. Maybe he will cover Matt Lottich, the Stanford jump shooter from Central Casting, if the Cardinal and the Hawks meet in March or April. They haven't played coach Mike Montgomery's No. 2-ranked Stanford team, they haven't played No. 1 Duke, they haven't played No. 4 Pittsburgh. Still, on Monday their schedule was ranked the 31st most difficult in the nation—and their nonconference schedule was rated the toughest.
"People can look at our schedule and make any nonsensical argument they want," says Phil Martelli, the Hawks' blunt coach. "The fact is, we've beaten all the teams we've played." And you know what all that winning does? It makes you better. Ask John Wooden.
St. Joe's opened its season on Nov. 14 at Madison Square Garden with a 73-66 win over Gonzaga (ranked No. 7 this week). On Feb. 2—in Philadelphia's version of a holy war—the Hawks beat Villanova 74-67 at 'Nova for victory number 19. Last Saturday, at the Palestra, the Hawks faced then 8-12 La Salle, their cross-city rival and Atlantic 10 foe. The old gym, seemingly built with parts from the first Erector set, was bursting at the girders, and the crowd was all heated up by the ESPN lights, the La Salle cheerleaders and the fluttering wings of the Hawk, St. Joe's scary-looking mascot. Weird things happen at the Palestra, and in the pregame chitchat some wondered if this might be upset day.
No, it was same old, same old, in the end. With as many as four perimeter players—Nelson, Delonte West, Pat Carroll and Tyrone Barley—in the game at the same time, St. Joe's pressed for the entire first half, as it always does. The Hawks are small but quick, and maybe they'd be vulnerable if you could get the ball inside consistently against them, except you can't. Their smother-'em defense usually leaves opponents harried and panting, and it generally produces enough breakaway layups and open threes to build a huge first-half lead. After 20 minutes St. Joe's led the game Explorers 46-32. In the second half the Hawks often eat the clock, stay out of foul trouble and take one smart perimeter shot after another. They also have a knack for holding the other team's big scorer to a paltry sum; on this day the victim was guard Gary Neal, who came in averaging 20.4 points and scored seven. Opponents find the St. Joe's method discouraging—and impressive. Against La Salle, the best backcourt in college basketball, point guard Nelson and junior shooting guard West, needed to play only 30 and 27 minutes, respectively. Still, they combined for 42 points, and the Hawks won 89-63.
"Another day in the office," said the 6'4", 180-pound West, an artist off the court and a banker on it. He's an art major from Greenbelt, Md., who says of Nelson, "I just hope he remembers his buddy when he makes it to the league." Someday West may have an NBA game, but for now his primary job is to take well-considered shots. He's good at it. At Xavier on Jan. 17 West was 12 for 12 from the floor and 6 for 6 from the line for 33 points. At week's end he was averaging 19.0 points, 5.6 rebounds (second on the team to 6'11" center Dwayne Jones's 7.7) and 4.7 assists, and he was shooting 89.2% from the line. Nelson was averaging a team-leading 20.4 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 steals (second in the nation). Each was shooting better than 50% from the field and 40% from three-point range.
After the final buzzer on Saturday, La Salle coach Billy Hahn, all wet and worn out, whispered praise in Martelli's ear for 20 seconds. Hahn played at Maryland under Lefty Driesell and spent 12 years there as an assistant to Gary Williams before moving to La Salle three years ago. He's seen more than his share of elite college basketball. He said St. Joe's is as good as any team he's ever seen. He praised Martelli for the unselfishness of his players and for their relentlessness.
"I hope you're enjoying it," Hahn said.
"I am," Martelli said.