Saturday, February 16, 2002

Disappointed SJU playing for pride

Slow start dashed Hawks' high hopes; XU on tap tonight

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's hard to quantify the weight of expectations until it's your shoulders they occupy.

        Phil Martelli thought his Saint Joseph's basketball players could handle that heavy lifting. He had four fifth-year senior starters, including All-American candidate Marvin O'Connor, plus the returning National Freshman of the Year, Jameer Nelson.

        Yet as soon as the Hawks were given their first preseason ranking in 37 years — No.10 — the stunning losses started. Head-scratching soon followed.

        The Hawks (15-8, 9-2 Atlantic 10), dubbed the nation's most disappointing team by Sports Illustrated, tonight visit Xavier (18-4, 10-1), a school that learned four seasons ago how such a spotlight can singe.

        “I talked to (former XU coach) Skip (Prosser) this year about that,” Martelli said. “He went through it. Because of the rankings or whatever, (opponents) get more excited; they come at us. For an older group, we've panicked in certain situations. And, we haven't had any luck.”

        This follows an overachieving season in which the Hawks were picked in the middle of the A-10 pack but stormed to the league title, tying a school record with 26 wins.

        Flashback: XU had been a surprise team in 1996-97, as a sophomore core of Gary Lumpkin, Lenny Brown, Darnell Williams and James Posey led XU to its highest Associated Press poll finish ever, 13th. With that team intact, XU began the '97-98 season at No.10 and reached a high of No.7 a couple of weeks later.

        But the Musketeers went 7-5 the next two months, dropping all their close games, and fell out of the rankings. It was a learning experience for the program.

        “That was the most media ever in practices, things like that,” said XU fifth-year senior Alvin Brown, a freshman that season. “That can interfere with what you're trying to do on the court. Eventually, you get used to it and things start working out for the better for you.”

        That XU team won seven of eight down the stretch to win the A-10 Tournament, finishing 22-8.

        Then the same expectations hung over the next season, when Lumpkin, Lenny Brown and Posey were seniors. (Williams sat out with a knee injury.) The Musketeers began the year ranked 16th but missed the NCAA Tournament.

        XU coach Thad Matta said he felt the weight of expectations last season at Butler. After the previous year's team nearly upset eventual national runner-up Florida in the NCAAs, the Bulldogs struggled in an 8-5 start before catching fire.

        “You were now the hunted, not the hunter,” Matta said.

        SJU has had five games in which it needed to make one shot to win or tie at the end. It missed them all. The Hawks had to shut down 7-foot-1 junior center Alexandre Sazonov with a foot injury. O'Connor jammed a toe three times this season and sat out the loss to North Carolina.

        “Guys were more comfortable last year,” SJU senior Na'im Crenshaw told the Philadelphia Daily News. “Guys are looking over their shoulder now. I don't know why.”

        Martelli said there were technical problems early that got corrected. Then the problems became psychological.

        “It was out of character, almost like everyone was on an island,” Martelli said. “Practice sessions had become very quiet. There was a lack of an emotional connection.”

        Martelli said that funk is over and his team is playing harder. But though the Hawks have a two-game lead in the A-10 East Division, their No.82 RPI ranking is just fifth-best in the league, so the NCAAs are a long shot.

        “We can't do anything about the past,” Martelli said. “But everything that we want to achieve is still in front of us.”


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