With Villanova having already earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking and, despite a recent loss at Xavier, still on its way to a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, it might be easy for some to at least partially overlook the incredible season its Big 5 rival is putting together down the road.
But that doesn’t bother Phil Martelli, who on Sunday guided Saint Joseph’s to its 24th win of the season, matching the program’s most victories since Jameer Nelson became a Hawk Hill legend more than a decade ago.
If anything, the St. Joe’s coach believes Villanova head man Jay Wright deserves more national recognition for the Wildcats’ staggering recent success.
After Sunday's win over Saint Louis, Martelli was asked if this 'Nova team reminds him of the 2003-04 St. Joe’s squad that had a perfect regular season and also briefly attained a No. 1 ranking
"Here’s what everyone has missed about Jay Wright," Martelli said. "Jay Wright has done this without pros. I had three pros on that [2003-04] team. And that was a national story from when the Eagles' season ended.
“We haven’t done enough as a basketball community to recognize what Jay has done. When you start talking about, ‘Well, Kansas does it this way, Arizona this way,’ [Villanova does] it without pros. Jay has done it for years without pros. He had a first-team All-American, Scottie Reynolds, that wasn’t a pro. That’s phenomenal. It just absolutely blows my mind how good he is at what he’s doing.”
Wright, of course, has had a few players move on to the NBA, including, most recently, Darrun Hilliard. But when you consider that the Wildcats are a blistering 87-12 over the past three seasons, Martelli’s point is certainly a fair one.
St. Joe’s, meanwhile, had a strong season two years ago to make the NCAA Tournament with current New York Knicks guard Langston Galloway leading the way, before taking a big step back last year and finishing 13-18. But now, at 24-5 and 13-3 in the Atlantic 10, the Hawks are poised to perhaps win a regular-season conference title and wear light jerseys in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Do they deserve more national attention for such a remarkable turnaround?
“To be honest with you, I personally don’t care about any of the recognition,” Martelli said. “As long as the guys in the room, as long as the players themselves, are enjoying the experience and are pleased with what they’re doing but not satisfied. This is a really special group having a special year.”
The players certainly are enjoying it. And they don’t mind if Villanova might be stealing a few of their headlines.
“Villanova, they’re a great team,” Bembry said from the St. Joe’s locker room after he poured in 27 points in the Hawks’ 77-63 win Sunday. “They’re obviously doing a lot better than us. They were number one in the nation. They’re a good team. It was fun playing against those guys.”
“I think we get recognized,” St. Joe’s standout senior Isaiah Miles added. “Villanova’s a really good team. But I think the city’s going to know about us, especially if we make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
The city, at least the hoops fans in it, certainly knows about the longtime head coach at St. Joe’s. And they’ll hear about him even more this week as Martelli is poised to win his 400th game after picking up career victory No. 399 on Sunday.
And even Martelli, who’s generally dismissive about personal accolades, admitted that will be the kind of recognition he’d enjoy.
“It would be pretty cool because 400, with it being 25 wins this year, that combination would be special,” said Martelli, who's in his 21st season as SJU's head coach. “I’d think a lot about my family and what they sacrificed but also what we’ve gotten for being a part of this. I would think about these assistant coaches who have worked so hard. I would think about all of those loyal people who send a text, send an email, drop a note, come up to you at a restaurant.
“I’m not gonna say it’s meaningless. It’s not meaningless. It’s a significant number.”
And Martelli hopes he can get it on Wednesday when the Hawks take on a St. Bonaventure team that handed them a rare loss earlier in February.
So do his players.
“That’s definitely something that will be special to be a part of,” Bembry said. “He’s a great coach. He’s done a great job and is a big reason why we’ve been so much better.”