Phil Martelli is a colorful guy.
It probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, then, that he described the challenges his Saint Joseph’s team will face in its first-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Cincinnati in, well, colorful terms.
“I don’t go to clubs, but I would never, ever sneak into clubs where these guys are gonna be the bouncers,” the St. Joe’s head coach told reporters shortly before the Hawks flew to Spokane. “They treat the basket like it’s a club. And unless you have the proper ID and a cover charge, you ain’t getting in.”
The question: Do the Hawks have the proper ID and cover charge to get past Cincy’s punishing interior defense Friday night in Spokane (9:57 p.m., TruTV)?
St. Joe’s star DeAndre' Bembry, for one, believes his team can still get to the basket even as 6-foot-7 Gary Clark and 6-foot-10 Octavius Ellis (who combine to average three blocks per game), among others, protect it.
“We know Cincinnati is a tough-minded team,” Bembry said. “But we can finish around the rim. We have some of the best finishers in college basketball — James Demery, myself, Aaron Brown, even our point guards can finish around the rim. We’re not worried about that part. We’re just gonna focus on our defense. Offense isn’t really the problem for us.”
It could be a problem Friday, even though Bembry and fellow star Isaiah Miles (who combine to average nearly 37 points per game) have been terrorizing opposing defenses all season. The Bearcats boast one of the best defensive teams in the nation, ranking fifth in Division I in blocks (5.8 per game), 10th in scoring defense (62.9 ppg) and 12th in field goal percentage defense (39.0).
And even more challenging is the fact they do it mostly with their size, beating up opposing teams for 40 minutes and grinding out victories.
“Their size is incredible,” Martelli said. “Their matchup is different than any matchup we’ve seen. Because their coach is insistent on maximum effort on every play, that’s exactly what he gets. Their defensive numbers are really astounding. ...
“It’s a daunting task but one I look forward to.”
Some may have expected Martelli to solicit help from Fran Dunphy, whose Temple team played — and lost to — Cincy twice this season. But the St. Joe’s coach didn’t want to put his friend in a position where he’d have to betray his solidarity to a conference brethren.
Martelli also said he turned down scouting help from two teams in his own conference, George Washington and VCU, that played — and defeated — the Bearcats this season.
“It’s not an ego thing,” Martelli said. “We’ve studied them and we’re ready.”
On top of not wanting to put other coaches in tough spots, Martelli is also focused on not changing his team's routine or preparation too much.
The stakes may be raised and the opponent will be as ferocious as they've seen all season. But the Hawks plan to rely on the same the same things that carried them to the Atlantic 10 Tournament title and 27 total wins.
“We play a balanced game of basketball,” Martelli said. “We have two really certifiable college superstars. We have guys willing to play their role. And we don’t turn the ball over. That should give us a chance.”