St. Joseph's Hawks hope to build on hoops success

St. Joseph's won 13 games last season. It didn't matter that nine losses were by six points or fewer, with another coming in overtime. That is what happens to teams that aren't good enough.

This time around, the Hawks were picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Ten, which sounded about right.

On Wednesday night at the Palestra, in the second game of the 60th anniversary Big Five doubleheader, they improved to 15-3 with a 75-60 win over 6-9 Penn, which had beaten the Hawks three of the last five years. That's their best 18-game start since the 2003-04 team won its first 27 and got to No. 1.

First-year Quakers coach Steve Donahue called them one of, if not the most, improved teams in the country.

He would not be wrong.

"It's basically the same team," Donahue said. "They're having a pretty incredible season. No one could see this coming. They came out of nowhere. This team couldn't make a shot last year. [Now] there's not a bad player out there. It's contagious. Last year, it snowballed in the other direction.

"Sure, they have an NBA player [in junior forward DeAndre' Bembry]. But they've got another [senior forward Isaiah Miles] who's got Atlantic Ten player of the year numbers [too]."

Correct again. So what happened? Well, how many times does everyone on a team get better? But you could say that about each of the eight guys in the rotation.

Last season, Bembry almost had to have a monster game for the Hawks to have a chance. And sometimes that still couldn't get it done. Now, he can pass the ball, which he does well, and good things are often possible. And not just when he targets Miles, which obviously has become a great option.

"All the compliments should go to the assistant coaches," said head coach Phil Martelli. "They did the work in the spring and the summer. And the players. They were not just hoping the coaches would come up with something. It took all of us to do this. The light needs to be shined on the right people.

"You could say it is what it is. But I think they looked at the man in the mirror and said it wasn't good enough. I know the players are hearing [what people are saying]. I'm very pleased [with where we are], but I don't want them to be satisfied."

The Hawks have put themselves into the NCAA tournament conversation. But there's a long way to go until Selection Sunday, and a lot of work to do. They're at La Salle Saturday before hosting Massachusetts on Wednesday. They still have road games against Rhode Island, George Washington, Davidson and St. Bonaventure (in Rochester). They're third in the conference standings. Finishing in the top four would probably make it hard for the Selection Committee to keep them out of the field.

Two of their losses were to Villanova and Florida. If they hadn't blown an 11-point lead at home in the final seven minutes early this month against VCU, when they missed 10 second-half free throws, they'd have a 12-game winning streak. What they do have is a chance. And that's an unexpected big deal.

"I just think these guys really like playing with each other," said one of the assistants, former Hawk Geoff Arnold. "Even in practice, just being together. It makes a difference."

If nothing else, it should make for an interesting next seven weeks.