Overachieving St. Joe's ready for Cincinnati

WHATEVER HAPPENS in the hours just before the NCAA selections are made often gets lost in the national obsession that is our rush to decipher the brackets. What Saint Joseph's did over the weekend in Brooklyn was a reminder of how wonderful basketball can be when played in perfect harmony and could very well be instructive on how the Hawks might play this Friday night in Spokane, Wash., against Cincinnati.

Sunday's Atlantic 10 championship game win over VCU was about as aesthetically pleasing a performance as you are likely to see. When St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli was asked if he could remember any of his teams playing better, he first consulted with director of basketball operations Rob Sullivan and said that the only thing that came close was his 2003-04 team's 114-63 win at St. Bonaventure.

If Papa Ndao had not gotten those two technical fouls and stopped his team's momentum against VCU, it really looked like the Hawks were going to win by 30.

"It was the utilization of space and then it was the snowball effect," Martelli said. "The ball went in and then the next ball went in. All of a sudden, you can't miss."

The Hawks had just seven turnovers and used VCU's aggressiveness against them, filling holes, cutting to empty spaces, finding angles, making passes, finishing plays. It was basketball ballet.

The Hawks scored 86, 82 and 87 in their three tournament wins, getting 1.26 points per possession against George Washington and 1.23 ppp against VCU. Once they got the lead in each of the games, they never came close to giving it up, even if the score of the Dayton game was closer than the play on the floor. The second-half comeback against GW happened so quickly it was over before the Colonials could react.

Now, Cincinnati (22-10), with its No. 8 defensive efficiency after a season of hard-luck losses (three by two points, one by four points, one in overtime, one in two overtimes and last Friday in four overtimes against Connecticut), will be a much different test.

"They're very physical," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, whose team beat the Bearcats, 77-70, on the road and in that two OT game at home. "They're going to play a lot of 2-3 matchup-type stuff, they're very good defensively. Their size up front is formidable."

Whatever happens next, St. Joe's will always have its second A-10 championship in three years. It is very hard to lose a senior class like the Hawks had in 2014 and develop a team with so many different parts to win another that quickly.

It is a tribute to the coaching and, really, the program that is now at 402 wins and counting since Martelli took over in 1995.

St. Joe's is 27-7, a record absolutely nobody could have imagined when the season began on Nov. 13. The A-10 Tournament was really a microcosm of that season.

Isaiah Miles scored 67 points and had 25 rebounds in the three games. He also shot 23-for-43 overall and 16-for-17 from the free throw line. DeAndre' Bembry scored 60 points while also getting 18 rebounds and 15 assists. Aaron Brown was as good as he's ever been with 48 points in the tournament.

The Hawks played the game at such a high level it looked at times like they were the only team on the court, their players so open and in synch.

"It's just player development," Martelli told the audience at Monday morning's Coaches vs. Cancer Breakfast at the Palestra. "All credit goes to the players and all credit goes to the assistant coaches. They did it."

Coaching these days is about so much more than what happens on the court.

"We do a lot of putting out fires," Martelli said.

Just not with this team.

"No fires, just basketball," Martelli said.

Meanwhile, it's time for what's next.

"We're back from spring break," Martelli said. "I mentioned to all of our players that class is really important (Monday and Tuesday) before we leave. Bembry told me, "Oh no coach, class, we canceled it.' I said, 'Good, I hope you enjoy watching the game Friday night from your dorm room.' "

It has been clear for months the coach really loves this team.

"We've been able to coach them, not have to manage them," he said. "I'm really appreciative of having had the opportunity to be with them and we want to take this as far as we can."

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi