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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Is The Hawk Dead?

Way back when, college coaches could predict with great certainty who they would have to recruit and when because players didn't leave early for the NBA draft and high school players didn't enter the NBA draft (with rare exceptions -- where are you Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins?). In an interim period, you had college players leaving early, but you didn't have the top HS players opting for the NBA draft, and good college coaches could predict with good certainty the types of players they would need and when. In today's environment, the elite programs and even the mid-majors get raided here, there and everywhere. Year after year, it's hard for many teams to gauge how good their teams will be.

For example, your top recruit could play so well that he becomes a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Your undersized junior two guard grows to 6'6" in the off-season and shoots the lights out, putting himself into the first round in the NBA draft. Your small forward from Slovenia decides to sign a big contract with the A League in Italy. Other players get hurt, some get frustrated by a lack of playing time, some you are happy to see leave, and others have trouble with grades or discipline. No college has required its head hoops coach to have degrees in adolescent psychology, astrology and higher mathematics, but it's not so bad if you have a coach who can read the minds of teenagers, read the tea leaves and understand with some certainty the laws of probability.

Bringing this all together, you have the tale of the St. Joe's Hawks, a mid-major program in the basketball-rich city of Philadelphia who almost upset a number one seed four years ago in the tournament (thanks to an all-world game by 2G Marvin O'Connor, who scored something like 36 or 38 points, outplaying Casey Jacobsen), had a loaded team returning in 2001-2002 (and disappointed, going deep, however, in the NIT), lost in the first-round of the NCAA tournament two years ago (to Auburn in OT), had then-junior (and star) PG Jameer Nelson flirt with the NBA draft, opting to return to Hawk Hill, and then going 30-2 last year and losing a bruising game in the Eastern Regional final to Oklahoma State, thanks to last-minute heroics by John Lucas III. Nelson starred alongside 2G Delonte West, who, like his backcourt mate the year before, flirted with the NBA draft after the season. Nelson, a senior, was a certain first-round pick going into the draft, and, somewhat owing to his play at post-season tryouts and the withdrawal of certain European players from the draft, West made it into the first round too. I wrote all about West's journey here, here, and here.

But that was then. The St. Joe's Hawks graduated ostensibly the best backcourt in the country (with Xavier's coming in at #2). With veteran backup Dwayne Lee sidelined because of injury, they are relying on an unknown frosh at the point, at least for several weeks. Yes, they have some big men back up front, but only C Dwayne Jones can be relied upon. They do have 2G Chet Stachitas back and SF Pat Carroll back, but how many open looks will they get without Nelson and West? And, yes, they've landed a mother lode of a recruiting class -- but for the fall of 2005. Which means, of course, that Phil Martelli will have to do one heckuva coaching job to get the Hawks into any post-season tournament, let alone the Big Dance.

He's done it before, and it could be he does it again.

But the fact that the cupboard is bare at the all-too-important guard positions (as the old saw goes, you need veteran guard leadership to help you win the NCAA tournament) demonstrates how fleeting a team's success can be. Last year, everyone was buzzing about St. Joe's, whether they deserved to be #1 in the regular season (at the time they did), and whether they deserved a #1 seed (as it turned out, they did). This year, they'll get some nods and winks, but pretty much they'll fly under the radar screen. If somehow they can pull out a 20-win season and make the NCAA tournament, you might just get tempted to call them the Gonzaga of the East (as Xavier is perhaps the Gonzaga of the Midwest).

But not quite yet.

They haven't posted enough consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, deep-into-the-tournament appearances, to warrant that comparison. Yet.

Still, as the team's mascot, the ubiquitous Hawk, never stops flapping his wings, well, the Hawks' teams under Martelli never stop coming at you. They'll fight hard in every game.

The head coach, though, only can take a team so far. After all, the name of the coach on Hawk Hill is Martelli, not Merlin.

Is the Hawk dead?

Not a chance.

But will the Hawk soar?

Don't bet on it.

But don't best against it, either.


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