March 28, 2005
NEW YORK - As one of only eight Division I teams in the nation still playing, the Saint Joseph's Hawks aren't simply happy to be here. With four gritty efforts in hard-fought games, the Hawks (23-11) have reached the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament as one of the country's hottest teams, and they aim to make the most of their time in the Big Apple.
"The only reason to compete is to win at this level," said head coach Phil Martelli at an NIT press conference at the Marriott Marquis. "It's about the opportunity to win. That's what this team has taken advantage of in the four games we've played [in the NIT]. ... When we gathered [Selection] Sunday night to say here's where we're going in the NIT, they were prepared for what was the challenge ahead."
SJU will play Memphis (22-15) Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Madison Square Garden in the first semifinal game; Maryland faces South Carolina in the nightcap. The game will air on ESPN2, on WPEN/950-AM, and at http://www.sjuhawks.com.
Martelli said his team has been playing efficiently, but not great, in the NIT thus far. He is happy, though, with the Hawks' improvement as the season has progressed, and he singled out seniors Pat Carroll and John Bryant, who helped Saint Joseph's build on last year's hugely successful season.
"Our seniors have won 95 games in four years," he said. "This group has left a message that that was not just a good team last year. This is a very, very good program."
Memphis coach John Calipari, noting the loss of 2004 stalwarts Jameer Nelson and Delonte West and pointing out the tough start the Hawks had to this season, had words of praise for Martelli.
"I know how good he is as a coach," said Calipari. "To take a team that lost two players, to play that schedule, to lose ... His real coaching job is now."
Praising their toughness and competitive spirit, Martelli compared the Tigers to Calipari's great Massachusetts teams of the 1990s. On a more contemporary note, he said that Memphis reminded him of three teams the Hawks faced earlier this year: Rhode Island, in its rugged frontcourt play and ferocity on the offensive glass; Villanova, in its freedom of play along the perimeter; and Xavier, for its physical defensive play,especially in attacking the ball.
That the Hawks are still playing is an enormous accomplishment. Saint Joseph's started the season 3-6, and Martelli admitted that during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, "the coaches' confidence was shot; the players' confidence was shot."
Looking for answers and recognizing that something wasn't working, he abandoned the press SJU had been using and instituted a down-tempo halfcourt offensive game. The result was a defensive-minded effort aimed at keeping games in the 50s and 60s. Since then, Saint Joseph's has gone 20-5. In its NIT run thus far, SJU has given up just 51.1 points per game.
"This is really a special trip for this team," Martelli said. "Their intestinal fortitude and character came together before they came to Saint Joseph's and were coached by us. We have had a special year because of our seniors. We are just willing to compete."
Tuesday night's game promises to be a challenge. As Martelli added, "You know when you play against John Calipari's teams, you're going to compete."