A book of readings for Lent rests on an end table in Phil
Martelli's hotel suite in suburban Buffalo. It's open to a
chapter from Hosea, Old Testament fire and brimstone evidently
the appropriate tone for NCAA tournament play. "A priest on
campus gave it to me," says the Saint Joseph's coach. "Guess he
was trying to tell me something." Martelli restlessly prowls the
room and stops at a closet. "See, I notice stuff like this," he
says, shaking a loose handle. "Shoddy workmanship. I wouldn't
stand for that at home." His three assistant coaches roll their
eyes. "If you tried to fix it yourself," says Mark Bass, "it
would take you four months."
The mood on this Friday morning, though, is subdued, serious
even, which is generally not the case in any room occupied by
Martelli. Having defeated Liberty 82-63 in their first-round game
the day before, St. Joe's is about 30 hours away from a date with
Bob Knight and Texas Tech at the HSBC Arena. Senior point guard
Jameer Nelson is the Hawks' star and the consensus national
player of the year, but through a 27-0 regular season, a
devastating 87-67 loss to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament
and a testy exchange with CBS's Billy Packer over the team's
having received a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, Martelli has put
himself out there as the face of the program. "He's the head of
everything that happens on Hawk Hill," says junior shooting guard
Delonte West. A classic Philly guy by birth and personality,
Martelli is the one who mingles at the communion breakfasts,
chatters with the radio stations, slaps the skin of the alumni
and hams it up on his TV show.
But now college basketball's 49-year-old Everycoach must
strategize against the Prince of Darkness himself. The name
Knight is never uttered. But it becomes clear that he and his
assistants are breaking apart a Knight team, one that challenges
with a muscular man-to-man defense and, on offense, screens and
cuts and rescreens relentlessly in what Martelli calls Knight's
"conceptual motion offense."
And in his first meeting with the volatile legend Martelli will
come away a winner, the 70-65 victory sending the Hawks to their
first Sweet 16 since 1997 and a Thursday date with Wake Forest,
Packer's alma mater.
Saint Joseph's had come into this East Rutherford subregional as
the shakiest No. 1 seed in the field, and a comment by Packer
that several teams could beat St. Joe's had turned Martelli's
bald pate crimson. He called Packer a "jackass" at a campus pep
rally and didn't back off during the, oh, hundred times he was
asked about it in Buffalo. As the St. Joe's brass fretted that a
second-round exit would be a crushing blow to the program, and,
not incidentally, a seeming validation of Packer's opinion,
Martelli kept saying, Bring it on. His All-America, Nelson, had
proved himself hundreds of times over a splendid four-year
career; this matchup against Knight, clearly, is on Martelli.
Throughout the five days in Buffalo, the coach tries to keep his
team focused on the task while allowing his populist,
everyone's-invited-to-the-party philosophy to prevail. A few
hours before the game against Liberty, Martelli had held a
morning walk-through in a small club room in the hotel. "O.K.,
the towel is the ball," he said, tossing it to Nelson, "and the
basket's back here by this table." Families wandered in and out,
watching this strange square dance. An hour after the win over
Liberty, Martelli was still conducting interviews on a cellphone.
But a man who talks a great game must also coach one when he goes
up against Knight. So here he is in his suite, holed up with
assistants Bass, Matt Brady and Monte Ross, spitballing the
jargon that defines the basketball junkie: "They set outside ball
screens, not inside ball screens." (Knight's teams set their
screens so their dribblers will go toward the sideline, not to
the middle where there will be defensive help.) "We can't honor
any ball fakes. None of them." (Knight's players are constantly
trying to get a defender in the air and drive by him.) "We have
to watch the way they set rear screens, then slip the screen."
(Knight's teams typically screen from behind with the screener
then cutting toward the basket, not away from it.)
As Martelli talks, he transcribes the notes he had made on a
legal pad during a solitary film session the night before onto a
master sheet that will become the scouting report given to the
team. He and his assistants talk about "going Duke on the catch"
(sending the defender whose man throws the ball into the post to
double-team the post man), "hurting them with our four smalls"
(playing four guards) and "getting into the gap to kick rather
than breaking them down" (asking Nelson and West to dribble hard
into the teeth of the defense, then, instead of continuing to the
hoop, finding open perimeter players for jumpers). Finally,
Martelli arises. "Let's go talk to the team," he says.
Much of what he and his assistants have discussed is played out
the following evening. The four-guard lineup ignites a 24-2
first-half run that erases an early Texas Tech lead. Nelson and
West dribble into the gaps and pitch out to junior swingman Pat
Carroll, who scores four key three-pointers. And though the Hawks
do only a fair job of keeping the ball out of the post, they
communicate constantly on defense and rarely get caught on back
screens. The Red Raiders battle hard, but the talent and
toughness of Nelson (24 points) and West (15 points, eight
assists, seven rebounds) win the day.
After the game Martelli allows that it is indeed something
special to coach against a Hall of Famer such as Knight. But a
day earlier, after he had finished his meeting with his coaches,
he had made another observation that was borne out by the events
in Buffalo. "The people who know me," he said, "know I can coach
a little, too."