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
January 12, 2004
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."