In case upsetting 17th-ranked Creighton last Saturday didn't prove to Phil Martelli that his program is on the rise after back-to-back 20-loss seasons, the St. Joseph's coach received further proof when he opened his email early Monday morning.
Numerous friends and acquaintances had written to inquire about tickets to Saturday's matchup with Villanova including one St. Joseph's alum seeking two seats for the heart surgeon who saved his life last summer.
The nuisance of ticket requests the week of a rivalry game is actually a welcome problem for Martelli because it shows St. Joseph's is beginning to regain the buzz it had during the early-to-mid 2000s when it was a perennial NCAA tournament contender. The Hawks are off to a 7-3 start with quality wins over Georgia Tech, Tulsa and Drexel in addition to the previously undefeated Bluejays.
Since St. Joseph's has no seniors on its roster and only one junior in its rotation, there's a sense the Hawks could be primed for another run of sustained success the next few years. Martelli spoke with me earlier this week about why the program struggled the past two seasons, what caused the the turn-around and how important Saturday's game against Villanova is in terms of sustaining momentum.
JE: The team started to show signs of life by going 6-5 to end the season last year, but are you surprised at how rapidly you've improved?
PM: I try not to be surprised positively or negatively. I always going into the year saying these are some givens that I know about my group. I see these as positives. I see these as negatives. And there's a whole group of unknowns. They unknown for me would have been how resilient is this group. What if a guy anticipates playing 27 minutes and plays 12? What if a guy anticipates averaging double figures and is struggling to get three or four buckets a game? That part of it has been really good. The other thing I didn't know is could we get everyone to accept their roles? We've been really working on that since August, saying to them it's only about the team winning. Your individual agenda hasn't worked the last two years. I am only interested in helping Saint Joseph's win.
JE: How important was it to beat a team like Creighton not just because it's a marquee win but also for the confidence of the players?
PM: I think the validation was important. We had 1,000 students here. We need them to be here. We certainly validated ourselves as a good home team. We still have to prove ourself on the road. Two of our three losses are true road games. But it was validation that the individual guy could play in that level of game and that the team could follow a plan and play in a game of that level. That's a big deal.
JE: I know it's only mid-December, but is the early success especially gratifying for you just because of what the program endured the past couple seasons?
PM: The satisfaction to be honest comes from the faces of the players and the faces of the staff. To see people smile and to be in the locker room after games and see players excited about college basketball or the coaches anxious to get out to a practice session, that's what to me is satisfying. The basketball teacher in me can say to you that I can't wait to get to practice each day.
JE: You guys were so consistent for so many seasons. Are there any factors you can point to for what caused the program to slip?
PM: Plain and simple, I made mistakes in recruiting. Some of it was recruiting outcomes. We recruited guys as hard as we could recruit them and they decided to go somewhere else. That's not recruiting mistakes. That's a recruiting outcome. But it got to a point where some of the decisions I made in recruiting, I would always look at the top end. I would say, 'I think this player can become this.' I probably looked at everything as glass half full as opposed to what if the other happens, what if guys don't max out, which is more realistic. So some is recruiting outcomes and some is that I put unrealistic expectations on my own abilities, my coaches' abilities and the players' abilities to reach their maximum heights.
JE: What was the turning point in your mind? Was it landing the 2010 recruiting class that are now sophomores for you guys?
PM: I think the turning point really to be honest was the middle of the Atlantic 10 season last year when we started to play a little slower, started to play some zone and there was some success. From that success, I think the player stopped doubting themselves, stopped doubting the system and stopped doubting the staff. They said, 'You know what? We do belong here and we can play at this level.'
JE: Carl Jones and Langston Galloway have been great for you guys this season. What impresses you most about them?
PM: The fact that they've grown into being terrific teammates. Their teammates know that they love to be in the gym, but their teammates believe they're in the game so that we have a chance to win the game, not so they can score 25 or get a certain accolade or any of that. I believe the teammates believe that their work is so we can win our next challenge.
JE: C.J. Aiken has always been a talented shot blocker, but it seems like he's making strides in other facets of his game. What has been the key to his growth?
PM: The biggest key to C.J.'s development is that he likes basketball. That hasn't always been the case with him. I've known him since he was in the ninth grade, and sometimes for big kids it's a challenge. Everyone expects you're going to be so dominant. C.J. last year as a freshman, kind of stayed in his shell. I don't know that he trusted enough. He's always trusted me for whatever reason, but I don't think he trusted us enough to allow us to coach him. I don't know that he trusted enough where he was comfortable in front of his teammates. Last year, if practice started at 3:30, C.J. walked on the floor at 3:30. This year, practice could start at 7 a.m. and C.J. is out there 10, 20, 30 minutes before and he looks excited to be there.
JE: Was there a turning point to C.J. becoming more comfortable?
PM: I just think it was a maturation. He's a very quiet guy and when you first meet him, you want to bring him out of his shell, convince him to talk and yuck it up. That's not who he is. He's very, very quiet and the guys on this team respect that. They don't bust his chops, they don't mock him in any way. He's just a quiet guy who likes to do what he likes to do. That's made it much healthier for him.
JE: Villanova has struggled a bit, but that's still a huge rivalry game for you guys. How important is it to keep your momentum going?
I have great admiration for Jay Wright and Villanova. What I've said frequently about their program is they get up every morning and their idea is how do we win a national championship? Everything they do -- recruiting, promoting, how their team practices -- is geared to preparing those players to compete for a national championship. Factor in the Philadelphia piece of this rivalry, and it will be quite an undertaking for us.
JE: You chose to host this game at Hagen Arena rather than play it at the Palestra like usual. Did you feel like this team would benefit from the competitive advantage of playing in front of its home crowd?
PM: It wasn't the extra advantage. We as a program had to get back to there being a buzz, an excitement. I know winning does that first and foremost, but the Villanova game is historic because they've never been on our campus. When I was asked what my opinion was, I had to voice my opinion for what was best for this group this year. For this group including student involvement, season ticket holders, boosters, let's give them something to get excited about. First and foremost, let's win and that will get people excited, but certainly conversation and anticipation, that's never a bad thing for a program when there are six Division I teams in your city.
JE: The A-10 has three very strong teams this season in Xavier, Temple and Saint Louis. Are you guys capable of challenging those teams and maybe even getting back to the NCAA tournament?
PM: In 17 years, I've never looked at it that way. I look at it one way. I feel it's very possible for me to say that I think tomorrow we can be better in practice than we were today and I think we can play better against Villanova than we played against Creighton. Other than that, I don't want to be a cliche, but I'm just not smart enough to figure out what we can do and I love to spend the energy on the individual guy. What can I do to allow him to be better than the previous day? So I never put my team in a box because I think if you do that, they'll carry you out in one. I don't want them to take my team out in a box yet.