Ten years ago, guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led Saint Joseph’s to an undefeated regular season and a trip to the Elite Eight. The Hawks have made the NCAA tournament only one time since, in 2008, when they fell to Oklahoma in the round of 64.
If Saint Joe’s is to return to the tournament this season, two games this week will be critical. The Hawks are about to begin a homestand against the two top teams in the Atlantic 10, and two wins could launch them into the at-large conversation.
On Wednesday night, the Hawks will host No. 13 Saint Louis, which has not lost since Dec. 1 (to No. 4 Wichita State). Second-place VCU, which is riding a five-game winning streak, visits on Saturday.
"If we want to go far at the end of the season, we have to climb the ladder," Saint Joe’s senior Ronald Roberts said after Saturday’s win over UMass. "This was a good test and these next two games are a great test. And playing at home is a great advantage."
The Hawks lost four of their first eight games of the season, including a 30-point loss to Big 5 rival Villanova. They have since lost only two games -- at then-No. 19 UMass on January 8 and Richmond on January 25. Saint Joe’s has quietly climbed the conference standings since, passing teams such as UMass and Dayton, and now sits just two games out of first place.
Winning the A-10 might not be a realistic proposition for the Hawks, but a solid formula for an at-large bid could involve one win this week, at least 10 total conference wins and a run in the A-10 tournament.
Saint Joe’s was not included in SI’s latest bracket watch, but it did make the “First Four Out” category on The Bracket Matrix, a compilation of more than 60 bracket projections. SI Bracketologist and bubble watcher Michael Beller assessed the Hawks’ NCAA tournament situation.
One week ago, it was hard to craft a tournament case for St. Joe's. At that time the Hawks didn't have a win over a team in the top 100 in RPI, and hadn't shown much in three of their five losses to teams in that class. Just when they needed some good fortune, Langston Galloway found the bank open in Dayton, knocking in a three off the glass with 1.8 seconds left to upend the Flyers. St. Joe's rode that wave into a home win over Massachusetts, its first over a team likely to make the tournament. Seven days after they appeared headed to the NIT, at best, Phil Martelli and the Hawks are nursing NCAA tournament dreams.Having said that, their tourney fate could be decided this week. The Hawks welcome Saint Louis and VCU to Philadelphia this week. While a win over the Rams would be nice, they can't really move the needle without taking down the No. 13 Billikens. If they win both, however, they would officially thrust themselves into the bubble discussion.
A win over Saint Louis or VCU would help Saint Joe’s fill one of the biggest holes on its resume. It has just one win against the RPI top 50 and three against the top 100. Saint Louis and VCU have RPIs of 22 and 26, respectively, and Saint Louis could be a four-seed or better. As Beller notes, Wednesday night's game against Saint Louis is the more important of the two.
Of course, before you discuss the ramifications of the wins, St. Joe's has to, you know, win. The Hawks have been average on offense and defense during conference play; they rank seventh among A-10 teams in points scored and allowed per possession. But they shoot threes as well as almost any team in the country, hitting 39.4 percent of their treys in conference play.
Senior guard Langston Galloway, who last week set a new school record for three-point field goals, has hit 45 percent of his long-range attempts this season. He leads the A-10 in offensive win shares (a metric that gauges how many wins a player is responsible for) during conference play and ranks second in three-point field goals made.
Forwards Halil Kanacevic and Roberts have proven an effective frontcourt combo. Against conference opponents Kanacevic is averaging 15.4 points and making 65.5 percent of his twos while playing 36.3 minutes per game; Roberts is putting up 11.6 ppg on 62 percent two-point field goal shooting in 33.4 minutes.
To win this week, Galloway, Kanacevic and Roberts will need to help the Hawks break down Saint Louis’ halfcourt defense, which has allowed 0.732 points per possession, rating out in the 95th percentile, according to Synergy Scouting Data. The Rams’ turnover-forcing defense is even more alarming. Against A-10 opponents, Saint Joe’s has turned the ball over on 21 percent of its possessions, worst in the conference. VCU has turned opponents over on 26.8 percent of their possessions, the highest rate in the country, and an A-10 best 23.1 percent during conference play.
If Saint Joe’s wins both games and goes on to make the NCAA tournament, its path would closely resemble that of 2012-13 La Salle, which beat Butler and VCU (on the road), then ranked No. 9 and No. 19, respectively, in a four-day span and won nine of its last 11 regular season games. The Explorers were slotted into a First Four, and went on to win three games before falling to eventual Final Four participant Wichita State in the Sweet 16.
Wins against the Billikens and Rams would at least give the Hawks some momentum down the back half of their conference schedule, if not a La Salle-type tailwind. Saint Joe’s cannot earn itself an tourney berth in the next four days, but it can move itself up the bubble pecking order and put itself in position to claim an at-large bid.