ATLANTIC CITY - The cover of the Temple media guide shows returning stars Mark Tyndale and Dionte Christmas, fitted with boxing gloves. They are showcasing the one-two punch of the Owls.
The cover probably raised the eyebrows of Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who is entering his 13th season on City Avenue. Not that he has a vested interest in Fran Dunphy's program. Rather, he is interested in his team becoming a lot more physical than it was last season.
"The main thing that I've seen in this team is that they've become tougher," said Martelli, whose Hawks were picked to finish third in the preseason Atlantic 10 coaches and media poll at the conference's media day yesterday.
"We were tougher in the spring, we were tougher in the summer and we've been tough in the preseason," said Martelli. "That to me was a great concern because we were in situations last year where we cracked and gave games away. It was partly my fault. It was also a combination players and egos and sensitivities. But they don't exist right now. This team is very focused on what we always believe in this program, and that is that today we have to be better than yesterday and let's be playing our best basketball in March."
Returning forward Ahmad Nivins, the team's leading scorer (16.6) and rebounder (7.6) last season confirmed the team has gotten Martelli's message.
"We have to be tougher, not just physically, but mentally," said Nivins, who was picked as preseason first team all-conference. "And I think we're taking big steps to do that. Having another year of experience will help a lot."
As will the addition of junior Tasheed Carr, a Philly native (University City) who played two seasons at Iowa State. Despite never having played a game for the Hawks, Carr's teammates voted him, along with senior Rob Ferguson, as a captain.
"That just speaks about his work ethic and his ability to be vocal on a quiet team," Martelli said. "Last year we didn't have a captain because I did not think they were prepared to do that. Tasheed is a Philadelphian. He's a guy who has put a lot into his game. He deserved to be voted captain. I'm delighted for him and Rob."
St. Joe's finished 18-14 last season, 9-7 in the league and lost in the second round of the conference tournament to eventual champ George Washington.
Dunphy's squad was picked seventh in the conference, and to him it's quite simple how his team will improve on its 12-18, 6-10 record.
"Defense. Our defense was one thing last year where we didn't do a very good job. I have to concentrate a lot more on that this year and make us better defensively. But I think with, [7-0 junior center] Sergio [Olmos] being a year older, and [6-9 freshman forward) Lavoy [Allen] coming in and giving us that length and an understanding of the game, that should help us be a better rebounding team and a better positioned defensive team as well."
Offense, defense, toughness. La Salle coach John Giannini is looking for improvement in all those areas from his team, which finished 10-20, 3-13. And he's seen it.
"Our team has worked extremely hard," said Giannini, now entering his fourth season with the Explorers. "I couldn't be more pleased with our offseason. We challenged our kids in a major way immediately after the last game. We had a good freshman class last year and they had to carry a very heavy load. They got a lot of experience and they've become a lot better basketball players."
The five sophs will team with three highly-touted freshman to lend more youth to Giannini's squad, which returns senior Darnell Harris (team-leading 14 a game).
"Eight of our top 10 players will be freshmen or sophomores. These kids are going to be very good, eventually," said Giannini. *