Phil Martelli was adamant. Yes his Hawks had received "an ass whipping" (his words) at the hands of Xavier in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals. But at 27-1 they deserved to be the No. 1 seed in the East Rutherford Regional.
The critics (yes you, Billy Packer) could howl all they want.
"I disagree with anyone that thinks one loss diminishes four months of work," Martelli said Thursday.
Martelli, of course, got his wish. The Hawks are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history and now enter the event in a most unusual situation.
The underdog favorite. Not to mention the most disrespected No. 1 seed ever.
Put it this way. Almost no one is going to say the Hawks will win the national championship. Few more will predict they even will reach the Final Four. Many will point to a second-round match with Texas Tech as the likely end of Saint Joseph's season.
Packer said as much on Sunday's selection show. Martelli responded by calling the commentator "a jackass."
Classic. Of course, the beauty of the NCAA tournament that is we will find out who is correct.
Just how good is St. Joe's? Well their backcourt is excellent. Nelson, the likely national player of the year, is the real deal. He can get to the paint on anyone and has a knack for scoring that is rare in such an unselfish player. His ability to draw defenses allows open shots for Delonte West and others.
While the Hawks' frontcourt is suspect, playing with four guards can create a matchup problem of its own. So we'll see.
Conventional wisdom says the Hawks won't be able to handle a team with a great frontcourt and because potential opponents Texas Tech, Charlotte, Florida and Wake Forest do not fit that bill, the draw could be a favorable one.
But at the A-10 tournament Martelli said he actually feared a great wing player. So maybe Tech and Andre Emmett isn't such a good match.
Who knows? At least Martelli got his wish. And the chance to call out Packer.
Now he and his team have to back up the chatter.
1. Wisconsin's home cooking – The University of Wisconsin, a No. 6 seed, plays the first two rounds in Milwaukee, its state's largest city. Think that might be a home-court advantage?
Pittsburgh, the third seed that many thought could have been a No. 1 prior to losing to Connecticut in the Big East final, is a potential second-round opponent. While the Panthers did get to play a subregional two years ago at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, they were a No. 3 seed (not a six) then. So the Panthers have plenty to gripe about. This is a major advantage for Wisconsin.
2. Can Florida advance? – Since reaching the 2000 NCAA championship game, the Gators haven't reached the tournament's second weekend. Billy Donovan routinely fields one of the nation's most talented teams – the man's recruiting ability is beyond reproach – but the Gators tend to struggle against truly elite teams and coaches. Hello Wake Forest in the second round.
3. Bob Knight – Always a good storyline, Knight has a heck of a team on his hands. When they are hitting shots and facing a team without too much size, they are extremely dangerous. Knight gets a lot of heat, but he has to be privately laughing all the way to the salad bar with this little fact: He's in and Indiana is not.
Who Will Win?
Committee chair Bob Bowlsby admitted that if the Big 12 championship game, won by the Cowboys, was played earlier Sunday, OSU may have wound up a No. 1 seed. But due to the time of the game, the committee never had the chance to debate the Cowboys' merits.
That's how good Oklahoma State is.
This historic program (it twice won NCAA titles under Hall of Fame coach Henry Iba) has returned to national prominence under Eddie Sutton the past 13 seasons, but it still lacks national attention.
But at 27-3 this team is deep, tough and hungry.
"They play so hard, a high level of intensity that shows up in loose balls, rebounds, hustle plays," Sutton said Sunday after beating Texas 65-49 in the Big 12 title game. "I'm not sure I've ever been prouder of a basketball team than this one."
It defends with an intensity that Iba would love. Point guard John Lucas Jr. is a perfect combination of scoring and passing, averaging 15.4 points and 4.9 assists a game. Wing Tony Allen is a slasher going for 16 a game. Athletic power forward Ivan McFarlin is the team's best rebounder.
Maybe most importantly, this is a team that can win a number of different ways, crucial in a tournament setting with unfamiliar opponents and varying styles.
And remember this: When Sutton has talent, he is particularly dangerous. Look for the old coach to advance to his third Final Four.
Dark-horse pick (Sixth seed or worse)
Memphis. Here is one thing the Tigers have going for them: Sean Banks, the 6-foot-8-inch forward who just may be the nation's top freshman. Banks averaged 18 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and has been especially great of late. A week ago he torched Cincinnati for 28.
Put it this way: If Banks played in the ACC, he would have been national freshman of the year. That's how unstoppable he can be.
Don't believe me? Just ask an NBA scout.
Memphis is a seventh seed due to inconsistency. But when the Tigers are on – especially when Conference USA player of the year Antonio Burks is at top speed – this is a tough out.
Most likely upset
Manhattan over Florida.
A year ago the Jaspers (24-5) gave eventual national champion Syracuse a serious run in the first round. This year there will be no small-conference jitters. They have an NBA prospect in guard Luis Flores (24.1 ppg), and forwards Dave Holmes and Peter Mulligan should be able to hold their own inside.
This is a team that can give just about anyone a run for its money, with a lot of tough New York kids who aren't going to back down. Florida just finished playing three games in three days in the SEC tournament and gets the well-rested Jaspers on Thursday in Raleigh, N.C.
Fun potential matchup
Memphis vs. Pittsburgh (Sweet Sixteen)
Memphis coach John Calipari, a native of Pittsburgh, was interested in the Panthers job last spring when Ben Howland skipped to UCLA. The school chose unheralded assistant Jamie Dixon instead.
Or if you prefer ...
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider:
Toughest mascot: Wake Forest's Demon Deacon. In the history of mankind nothing has caused more mayhem than evil religious leaders.
Coolest school colors: South Carolina's garnet and black.
Best coach: Texas Tech's Bob Knight.
Best academic reputation: Wake Forest.
Prettiest campus: Wake Forest.
Best home court: Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Best state flower: New York (Manhattan), the rose.
Best state bird: Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Saint Joseph's) – Ruffed Grouse (sounds like Bob Knight).
Five stars to watch
Jameer Nelson, Sr., G, Saint Joseph's: Likely the National Player of the Year.
Andre Emmett, Sr., G, Texas Tech: All-time leading scorer in Big 12 history.
Sean Banks, Fr., F, Memphis: When he is on, he can be impossible to guard.
Dexter Lyons, Sr., F. Central Florida: Money when he gets the ball down low. There is a reason UCF is 25-5.
Carl Krauser, Jr., G, Pittsburgh: Most improved player in the Big East has blossomed into a star.
• Jerry Falwell is the president of 16th-seeded Liberty.
• The first-round matchup between Florida and Manhattan features two of Rick Pitino's coaching proteges, UF's Billy Donovan and Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez. Donovan played for Pitino at Providence and assisted him at Kentucky. Gonzalez has no formal ties, but he and Pitino are very close.
• Gonzalez, who could emerge as a head-coaching candidate at St. John's and Massachusetts, isn't the only hot young coach in the region. VCU's Jeff Capel Jr. (who played at Duke) is just 29.
• The Commonwealth of Virginia has three schools in the region: Liberty of Lynchburg and VCU and Richmond, both of Richmond.
• Although much is being made of Pitt getting jobbed by having to play Wisconsin in Milwaukee, how about the tough draw for the Badgers? If the Big Ten tournament were held earlier Sunday, allowing the result to factor into the seeding, UW assuredly would have moved up to a No. 5 or 4 seed.
• If you are a young coach, a high school coach or maybe just someone who loves coaching, you will want to watch Jerry Wainwright of Richmond face Bo Ryan of Wisconsin in the first round.
- Phil Martelli
- Bob Knight