Tiny college, now No. 1, set to take on the big guys

Basketball has returned to grace in Philadelphia, a sports-loving city grown weary of prima donnas in high tops. Now, fans here are celebrating the return of the athlete-as-gentleman. Here again are the days when a sense of humility means as much as a good jump shot. When dads can rely on work-a-day players to model life skills for their sons. When doing the right thing is fun.

Philly has its little St. Joseph's University to thank for all this. Its team last week finished 27-0 in men's regular-season basketball - delivering the first perfect Division 1 record since the University of Nevada-Las Vegas did it in 1991.

Their undefeated status now gives the Hawks the coveted No. 1 slot in the national rankings - and a moment to savor as they head into their "second season," one they'd love to be as perfect as the first. "One game at a time" was the mantra of head coach Phil Martelli as his players took care of business in the final run of regular-season play. "Nine more games" was his refrain at the team's first practice last Thursday after sealing the season by defeating St. Bonaventure 82-50. He referred to the three-game Atlantic 10 tournament - where the team opens up Thursday in Dayton, Ohio - and the six additional wins it would take to capture the NCAA final, in which the Hawks may well be a No. 1 seed.

True, the 3.800-student, Jesuit-run St. Joseph's has yet to play the mighty Dukes, Stanfords, and Kentuckys, whose well-funded programs and huge followings make the Hawks look like the very poor relation. Still, the team recently became the darlings of the sports world, with star Jameer Nelson gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and Martelli getting lots of face time on ESPN.

Though the stiffest competition awaits, not everyone credits the team's success to "an easy schedule." Fans note that many hundreds of teams have lost in all manner of schedules since UNLV in 1991. And the top-echelon competitors on the tournament horizon "will have their own weaknesses," observes team spokeswoman Marie Wozniak.

At only 5'11" and 190 pounds, looking more like an NFL running back than an NBA power, the Hawks' Nelson is considered by many to be the best player in the NCAA. On and off the court, the unassuming Nelson leads a roster of kindred spirits who'd rather be winners than individual stars.

Four years ago, as a high school senior from nearby Chester, Nelson was largely overlooked early in the recruiting season. But he caught the eye of Martelli, who runs his program out of a cramped office next to the university's small, vintage gym. Nelson gave the coach a verbal commitment. Later - even as the big programs came a-courting, and even as St. Joe's limped to the end of a 13-16 season - the high-schooler kept his word to Martelli. He decided to forgo the NCAA draft last year as a junior, and this spring he graduates a campus hero, as much for his unselfish decisions as for his shooting percentage.

"No one is in there to be a star," says Andrew Koefer, a freshman walk-on almost cut until Nelson - who liked his work ethic - interceded on his behalf. Barely spared the ax, Koefer says he feels no less part of the effort. "We're just enjoying it, and thankful for all of it," he said at last Thursday's practice.

Says junior forward Pat Carroll, "All of us know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience." The team's "mental toughness," he says, sets it apart.

It's the shooting, and especially the three-pointers, that have lifted the Hawks this year. Playing with as many as four guards, the team works as if no individual stats were being kept. They move the ball incessantly, patiently making the extra pass that yields an open shot. The defense is all hustle and hard work.

Hawk fan Kurt Breck, a senior at St. Joseph's, says the team's success gives him "bragging rights" back home in the UConn state, where the basketball titan is reported to lay out at least $6 on recruiting for every $1 St. Joseph's spends. He shares the on-campus read that the team can beat even the marquee opponents as long as they keep hitting their threes.

The Hawks have turbo-charged the student body, which, in the absence of football, rallies around basketball even in imperfect seasons. Already known around town as a high-spirited bunch, the students have been "crazy," says freshman Courtney Morris. "A friend from English class paid $100 for a $5 ticket" to the final game of the season, she says, incredulous.

Fans here are led by senior Chris Bertolino, a quirky mascot in a Hawk costume whose job requirement is to flap his wings nonstop all game long. He calls his school "a huge family."

Though until now relative unknowns on the national scene, St. Joe's is no stranger to postseason play. This is their fourth trip to the NCAA tournament in Martelli's nine years as head coach, and in its history the school has spawned a steady stream of NBA and college coaches.

The program embodies the fiercely competitive spirit of the city's "Big Five," a beloved local institution featuring regular-season round-robin matchups of Temple, Penn, LaSalle, Villanova, and St. Joseph's. The local schools vie each year for a title that has at times seemed as coveted as any conveyed by the NCAA.

The Big Five has changed, but rabid rivalries remain. That some students from nearby Villanova may quietly root for the Hawks in the postseason this year, says St. Joseph's president the Rev. Timothy Lannon, is "proof of the existence of God."

As his students hope the spotlight beckons even more good players to "Hawk Hill," Fr. Lannon wants to use the moment to boost the nonsports rankings of the school, which boasts a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, an acceptance rate under 50 percent, and applicant SAT scores averaging 1200. "Already in job interviews, everyone's heard of it," says Breck, a senior.

By all accounts, success this year has been a gift to - and a gift of - the smiling, ever-talking Phil Martelli. He credits athletes who have played each game with "rare heart." Others see talented coaching of eminently coachable, down-to-earth students who share regular dorms, classes, and dining halls with the rest of the student body.

Martelli, long a familiar face in Philly basketball circles, moves around town pepping things up for the local CYOs and Rotary clubs, even adding his own 15 minutes to the campus tour of a nonathletic high school senior. The future aside, he says, "To be responsible for this much joy in the city of Philadelphia - it's wonderful."

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