If you want to know why college basketball – even with the scandals, even without the LeBrons – remains a wonderful pursuit you need only to glance toward the top of the national polls, where a little school of 3,500 students, a blue-collar point guard and a cut-up of a coach reside.
Saint Joseph's doesn't have private recruiting jets, doesn't have a $10 million practice facility and doesn't have a coach who spends more time looking for his next job than concentrating on his current one.
Instead it has real student-athletes, a real basketball field house (3,200 capacity) and a real connection with the student body.
And it also has the No. 3 team in the nation, off to a 20-0 start heading into Wednesday's clash with Dayton.
College basketball is our most diverse sport; 327 teams from 47 states represent schools of all shapes and sizes. St. Joe's is what it's supposed to be about.
Real fun and real success with real students filling the starring roles.
"The players are just regular guys," head coach Phil Martelli says. "Some freshman is going to sit down at a lunch table today with [Hawks guard] Pat Carroll and Pat will not think anything of it and the kid will think it's the greatest thing in the world."
This is like a step back in time.
College sports has become a ridiculous pursuit of excess. The recent college football recruiting season again showed how low institutes of higher learning will stoop for players, from alleged "sex parties" at Colorado to the entertaining, if infamous, recruiting diary of Carol City (Fla.) High linebacker Willie Williams, who detailed to a newspaper what schools will do to sign a convicted felon with closing speed even after he was charged with three new crimes during a campus visit.
College basketball is no better. Ugly scandals abound, and the big schools pour millions into athletic dorms, opulent locker rooms and private tutors who can sneak kids through joke majors. All widen the chasm between the players and the student body.
So watching little St. Joseph's perched above all those athletic factories and their millionaire coaches with control-freak egos is endearing. Watching the love affair between this team and its fellow students – not to mention the city of Philadelphia – is revitalizing.
There are no basket-weaving majors on the Hawks because this Jesuit school is too small, too strict for anything but real classes and real tests.
"In the academic world here at St. Joe's there is no place to hide," Martelli says. "Obviously we've [received] great adulation but that brings great responsibility. I tell the guys, 'If one of you goes late to class by the time [the story] gets back every basketball player is late for class.'"
The school was the perfect fit for the Hawks' star, 5-foot-10-inch point guard Jameer Nelson, who was lightly recruited out of Chester, Pa., the tough Philly suburb, but now may wind up as consensus national player of the year.
It's perfect also for Martelli, who spent 10 years here as an assistant before getting the head job. Nine seasons later he's slowly built a solid, steady program. He hasn't jumped at more lucrative jobs offers. He hasn't whined at the school's lack of resources. Instead he has done more with less. There isn't a coach who loves his university more.
And he still approaches work with a fun-loving attitude, not the over-importance of too many of his peers. On watching the postgame celebration Saturday after Stanford beat Arizona he cracked, "They are really smart to get into Stanford but this guy [was] running around trying to hug Tiger Woods. He should have been trying to hug Tiger Woods' girlfriend. Screw Tiger Woods."
And then he laughed.
At 20-0, at No. 3 in the nation, as the most unlikely powerhouse in sports, who can blame him? At Saint Joseph's these are the glory days. And for a sport that needs more of them, this is a dream-come-true story.
It can still be done in college hoops the right way by the right people. You don't have to cheat. You don't have to compromise. You don't have to spend like a pro franchise.
"It's a remarkable, remarkable achievement by our entire university," Martelli says. "Basketball does matter and can matter and can be part of the fabric of an entire university."
- college basketball
- Phil Martelli