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St. Joe's lost the game but won March Madness in so many ways

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St. Joe's lost the game but won March Madness in so many ways

The problem with the NCAA Tournament, sometimes, is we too often remember only the final moments. The incredible buzzer-beaters. The crazy meltdowns. The celebrations and the tears. (And also stuff that doesn’t involve Northern Iowa over the last four days).

So when Saint Joseph’s ride came to a gut-wrenching end Sunday in Spokane, it will be the late turnovers that sealed Oregon’s 69-64 win over the upset-minded Hawks that many people will likely remember for years to come.

And that’s a shame because, despite the tough loss, this very likable St. Joe’s team won March Madness in so many ways. Let’s count them:

1. A star is born noticed

Every hoops fan in Philly may know about DeAndre’ Bembry and his ‘fro but it quickly became apparent that not everyone in the country does, especially when analyst Doug Gottlieb referred to him as the “best player you’ve never heard of.” It was nice to see, then, that the junior swingman was able to shine on the national stage, scoring 23 in the Hawks’ first-round win over Cincinnati and going for 16 points and 12 rebounds vs. Oregon -- this after his 30-point monster game in the Hawks’ Atlantic 10 title-game triumph. He even showed what kind of leader he is for taking the blame for the loss to the top-seeded Ducks because of a late turnover before expressing gratitude and appreciation for the ride. He will be missed on Hawk Hill if he decides to turn pro.

2. A perfect game-winning shot

The Hawks couldn’t have drawn this one up any better. Trailing by one to Cincy in the opening-round 8-9 game, head coach Phil Martelli called a brilliant play out of a timeout to get Isaiah Miles open for a three-pointer that the senior drained. Miles said afterwards that it was the first game-winner he ever hit at any level even though he had been dreaming about it all his life. And it was fitting end to a remarkable senior season in which Miles turned into a bona fide star following three mostly pedestrian seasons.

3. Martelli’s got jokes

When he wasn’t thinking up great plays, Martelli was thinking up interesting responses to reporter’s questions (or their posture). After comparing Cincinnati’s defenders to bouncers at a club, the Hawks’ coach had a little fun with a writer that was, um, too relaxed at the postgame press conference following the win. “You need like a cushion or anything” is definitely going to be the name of my NCAA Tournament bracket next year.

4. “Fresh Kimble” shows the future is bright

His real name is Lamarr but everyone calls him “Fresh.” He certainly helped the Hawks look fresh Sunday night with some clutch shots and great drives in the second half while some of the veterans battled foul trouble. The point guard finished with 11 points off the bench against the Ducks but my favorite moment came when he -- a freshman -- was doing his best to console Bembry coming off the court. That shouldn’t come as much a surprise as he clearly loves the guy. And if Bembry leaves, perhaps he’ll take his mantle as the next St. Joe’s star.

5. Aaron Brown’s last hurrah

Other players came through with some big March moments for the Hawks but it’s hard not to specifically highlight Aaron Brown, who scored in double figures in both NCAA Tournament games. The senior has been through a lot and actually played in the Big Dance back in 2012 while at West Virginia. But that must seem like a lifetime ago. So it was cool to see him bookend his college career with another trip to the NCAA Tournament -- and an impressive one at that.

6. The walk-ons got moves

Do not try these dance moves at home:

7. The return of little Phil

He’s no longer wearing a custom suit, holding a clipboard and mimicking the coach like he did two years ago but Martelli’s cute grandson was stealing camera time again this March -- this time decked out in a full uniform.

8. The alums were all in

Even the ones that are now in the NBA.

9. The Hawk loses his head

Props, as always, to the Hawk. It’s alway fun hearing people marvel (or mock) how it flaps its wings the entire game, especially this time of year. Turns out, there’s a real person inside there too.

 

10. Underdog spirit

It may get overlooked since Oregon isn’t a traditional power but it’s important to keep in mind that a St. Joe’s team that had little to no expectations before the season began not only won the A-10 Tournament and a game in the Big Dance (its 28th of the season) but also went toe-to-toe with a No. 1 seed. And they did so after flying across the entire damn country. And with no true big man. And with their own city probably focusing more on Villanova and Temple than them. This is a team that needs to be remembered for a very long time -- and not just for how the season ended. 

Sixers put organization ahead of Mikal Bridges' feelings ... and that's okay

Sixers put organization ahead of Mikal Bridges' feelings ... and that's okay

Brett Brown sold me.

I agree with my colleague Andrew Kulp that the moment the news of the Sixers trading Mikal Bridges broke that I was flabbergasted. His mother works for the Sixers! Mikal was literally talking about how exited she was for him to be in Philly when the news broke. His poor mother! It was pretty much as rough as it gets in terms of optics. 

It looked awful from a PR perspective. There are tons of disappointed Villanova alums today.

But it's an unfortunate situation, in my opinion, not an organizational embarassment, as Kulp wrote.

An unprotected first round pick though? Damn. That's enticing.

Then Brett Brown came out after the first round ended and put my mind at ease that the Sixers made the right move.

They did what they believed to be best for the Sixers, a "Godfather offer" if you will. Here's Brett's, incredibly honest and thoughtful opening statement. You can watch it in full above. I think it's worth watching to realize how much thought Brett and his decision makers put into this one.

"We had 1A and 1B and when the 9th pick was selected you realize, we’re going to get one of our two, and we chose Mikal [Bridges]. And to see that play out knowing the history that he has had in this city and at Villanova, it was very much aligned and he was somebody that could come in a fit with what we had. And so it goes from that level of excitement in the extreme coincidence, given his history in this city, to a situation in between that the phones were active and we knocked back an incredible deal where we would lose him. We didn’t rate it to be a Godfather type of deal, something that really would impact the franchise to the level that it would have to in order to trade Mikal, who we valued very much."

"And then Phoenix came in and offered a 2021 unprotected plus our 1B in Zhaire [Smith], who we value very highly, and you’re in a position that you’re on the clock and you really have a decision to make. And for me, and all of us in that room, what also rules our day is a few things. First— and in this order—what is always best for the organization, I’m going into my sixth season with the Philadelphia 76ers and so what is best for the organization and how do you win a championship, how do you acquire things that can attract stars or develop stars? That pick might be the key to all of this, that pick might be the thing that links a possible trade, and we have our 1B in Zhaire."

The trade was jarring emotionally. There's no sugar coating that. Bridges is by all accounts a wonderful and thoughtful kid. Not to mention a hell of a basketball player who would absolutely help the Sixers in 2018.

Brown later added a line that should make you more comfortable with the Sixers moving on from him: "We are star hunting or we are star developing."

If the Sixers didn't believe that Mikal Bridges would be one of those stars, they added an incredibly valuable piece in the unprotected first that can help acquire a star. Either via trade or in a future draft. And they got their 1B on top of it.

Some very smart NBA people even believe that Zhaire Smith is a better prospect than Bridges. Only time will tell on those two players. But the Sixers did what they believed put them in the best position to land a star.

Isn't that what the Process is all about anyway?

"I'm here to win a championship," Brett Brown said at the introductory press conference for Smith this morning.

They pulled off this trade because they believe it helps them get closer to a championship. At the end of the day, are you worried more about one family's feelings or the Sixers winning a championship?

If you watched Mikal speak to the Phoenix media following the trade, he'll be just fine growing alongside DeAndre Ayton. That kid is a pro. And the Sixers put them in the position they believe best sets them up to land a star.

Now they just need to go out and do it.

No excuse for how Sixers handled draft night trade of Mikal Bridges

No excuse for how Sixers handled draft night trade of Mikal Bridges

To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell you a whole lot about Mikal Bridges, other than he’s a Villanova product and two-time national champion. I can’t tell you a thing about Zhaire Smith. And an unprotected first-round pick in 2021 is so far away, it could really be anything, or change hands three more times until then.

I don’t know if the Sixers were winners or losers at the NBA draft after trading Bridges to Phoenix for Smith and the Miami pick. Nobody knows that. We all have our opinions, but we don’t know.

The only thing anybody can say for certain is the organization should be embarrassed, no matter how this plays out on a basketball court.

The Sixers should be embarrassed, but not because the front office took a risk or made an unpopular decision. Love it or hate it, the trade was made with a clear vision, and it took courage for Brett Brown the interim general manager to give his OK, realizing it wasn’t necessarily the best move for Brett Brown the head coach in the immediate. Fortune sometimes favors the bold.

No, the Sixers should be embarrassed for pulling a bait-and-switch on Bridges, a 21-year-old kid and Philadelphia hero, while he was on live TV talking about how ecstatic his mom was he would be playing pro basketball in his hometown. Draft night trades are the norm in the NBA, so why would an NBA team put a young man and his family in that position less than 30 minutes after the selection was made?

Especially when, all the while, Brown was still fielding offers for Bridges.

“The phones were active and we knocked back an incredible deal where we would lose him,” Brown said after the conclusion of the first round. “We didn’t rate it to be a godfather type of deal, something that would impact the franchise to the level that it would have to in order to trade Mikal, who we valued very much.

“Then Phoenix came in and offered a 2021 unprotected [first-round pick], plus our 1B in Zhaire, who we valued very highly, and you’re in a position that you’re on the clock and you have a decision to make.”

The Sixers should be embarrassed by the latest in an increasingly long line of public relations blunders. If this were the only example of the organization’s ineptitude, it would be unfortunate, but forgivable. Instead, it was par for the course.

This is the same organization that took its sweet time ousting Bryan Colangelo amid a bizarre social media scandal mere weeks ago; that never convincingly explained the mysterious circumstances that led to Markelle Fultz sitting out most of his rookie season; that has frequently and publicly feuded with Joel Embiid over playing time; that was previously caught hiding major Embiid injury information from fans; that has a medical team constantly under fire for its inability to quickly and accurately diagnose injuries; that just endured years of bad PR for tanking, until it finally reached a point where the league allegedly stepped in and had to force Sam Hinkie out. Did we miss anything? Probably.

No, I don’t think we’re making too much about a press conference. Too often for far too long, the Sixers have come off as dysfunctional in far too many arenas, and it can't be endearing to the likes of LeBron James, other top-tier free agents and available veteran players or even the organization's own stars.

At least one person in the building seemed to understand how sensitive a situation this was.

“I live in this city with you all,” said Brown. “I watch Villanova. I love (Bridges’) mom. I love his college coach. There’s a human side of this that’s really kind of hard to explain.

“The emotion of what we have all been through has been painful, but what’s best for the organization and how do you win a championship? And since I’ve looked at you all, I haven’t pivoted out of that once. So, the torment of trying to do my job in the very limited role in the moment I have as general manager versus the role that I have as head coach of this program, it’s a toggle, and this is where we arrived.”

Too bad Brown apparently didn’t have a chance to convey that to members of the Sixers' staff before they prematurely started the victory parade.

“All of those emotions and all of those facts happened in a 20-, 25-minute window,” Brown said.

A 20-, 25-minute window is all the Sixers need to make an awkward situation worse. Brown, the fans and, most of all, Bridges and his family all deserved better on Thursday night.

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