It's becoming more and more quaint in modern, football-driven college athletics, but there's still such a thing as a basketball school. Saint Joseph's University, up on Philadelphia's Main Line, with a rich hardwood tradition that has translated well into modern times, most certainly is one.
Early fall is different at basketball schools. Unencumbered by the immediate, overwhelming pull of football, there is room to breathe. Basketball ultimately takes its place, but anticipation typically builds like a slow boil. When school begins, there's more than a month to go until official practice, two until the season actually tips. The sport starts more as discussion point than passion play, unless something special is in the air.
This winter could be one of those special seasons at Saint Joseph's, and everyone seems to know it. The fall semester has barely started on Hawk Hill, but the basketball buzz is palpable. Very palpable.
"Everybody can't wait, including us, all the students," said junior forward C.J. Aiken. "They've been yelling on campus, telling us they can't wait for the season. They're all excited. We can't wait, either."
There's ample reason to be amped for what should be the Hawks' most successful season since the Jameer Nelson/Delonte West squad fell one bucket short of the Final Four in 2004. Saint Joseph's, literally, brings everyone back from a 20-win team a season ago, one that was loaded with underclassmen who now have matured into an upperclass core. The Hawks have size, they have depth, they have (some) shooting, and they have a coach who has won over 300 games at the school.
Perhaps most important, they have a sense of purpose and an understanding that last year's foibles are no longer acceptable. Of the Hawks' 14 losses last season, they led in the second half in 11 of them, according to head coach Phil Martelli. A few of their defeats, according to guard Langston Galloway, were byproducts of immaturity, of failing to fully respect their opponents. Whether it's because the Hawks are a year older or just wiser from the experiences, Martelli already sees a difference in approach during early preseason workouts.
"There's a more seriousness of purpose and there's a real sense of competition," Martelli said. "And that starts with, 'Am I better? And if I'm better, than we're better.' And I think this will evolve over the next six or eight weeks, where there's competition and the rotation will look a little different."
The '04 Hawks clearly were fueled by their perimeter players, even though the frontcourt presence of Dwayne Jones was a significant factor. This season, the script (and the approach) may be flipped a bit. While diminutive lead guard Carl Jones (17.0 points per game) and the sharpshooting Galloway (15.5 ppg) were the Hawks' two leading scorers last season, they were buttressed by an emerging, talented frontcourt trio.
Between do-everything Halil Kanacevic, efficient scorer Ronald Roberts and Aiken, a tall, lanky wing, the Hawks have considerable quality of depth for an Atlantic-10 frontcourt. Martelli thinks the juniors have so much potential that he's spent the offseason watching film of frontcourt-dominant teams, exploring ways to use all three of them together considerably more than last season. The potential mismatch of Aiken being guarded by a small forward should put significant stress on opposing defenses.
"It definitely will spread out the floor, because [the defense] will be looking for the lob or a jump shot," Galloway said. "And then you have me, Carl, Chris Wilson in the backcourt, so we'll try to penetrate and look for them but try to get our own bucket at the same time."
The Hawks look really promising on paper, but with the current state of the Atlantic 10, they will need to deliver regularly on that promise in order to reach expectations. Despite losing head coach Rick Majerus for the season, Saint Louis returns a loaded roster from a team that almost made the Sweet 16 last season. City rival Temple should still be quality, even though several key players need to be replaced. Xavier's been decimated by roster loss, but Cintas Center is never welcoming. Other rising (and re-rising) programs like UMass and Richmond should provide additional resistance.
The biggest uptick, though, may come from A-10 debutantes Butler and VCU, which bring a pair of the game's most respected young coaches and a combined three trips to the Final Four in the last three seasons. The Bulldogs have added much-needed shooting with senior Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham while the Rams return four starters and add two highly touted recruits to last year's 29-win team. While he chooses to focus on his own team, especially at this point in the season, Martelli knows the Hawks will have considerable company in the league's top division, including from the newcomers.
"No one can think two of the hottest coaches in America stayed at their schools or that their schools made this enormous leap to the Atlantic 10, and did it within months, and are coming in here to finish fifth," Martelli said. "These are two more teams where everyone on their campus gets up every day and says 'How are we going to win this league?' ... They challenge everyone in the league, and they challenge Saint Joseph's, to examine what you're doing and do it better."
A year ago, coming off a second straight 11-win campaign and under a national microscope thanks to the school's handling of Todd O'Brien's transfer situation, it appeared that a lot of things needed to be done better on Hawk Hill. But Martelli didn't suddenly forget how to coach after ripping off a six-year run with an average RPI of 38 during the first half of last decade. He's authored a rebuild of the program over the last couple of seasons to match the one undergone by its quaint on-campus gym, and now the program and the school are poised to reap the benefits.
The talent is there, and the fans will be there to make Hagan Arena one of the toughest bandboxes in the land. If Martelli pushes the right buttons and the team's added experience translates onto the court, the Hawks should close out games better, find their way into the bracket, and be a threat to make it past the first weekend once they get there. We'll know more starting in November, but if their shooting guard is any early indication, both the urgency and the maturity will be there.
"I think it's all on us, just knowing that we won some games and everybody wants to get to the NCAA tournament," Galloway said. "So get there and make some noise from there. That's what we're focused on getting to, but we have to take care of business from the jump and take it game by game to get there."