St. Joe's set for first step on march toward NCAA bid

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DeAndre' Bembry and his St. Joe's teammates take on George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Friday.

I T WAS just 3 1/2 minutes, but it was those moments in a game Saint Joseph's eventually would lose when coach Phil Martelli believed his team had a chance to be very good. The Hawks trailed Villanova, 52-37, at Hagan Arena on Dec. 1. After those 210 seconds, they trailed just 54-49.

"I wanted to see how we would react to getting so far behind,'' Martelli remembered. "During that game, I said, 'There's something here.' "

After the game, Martelli told his team they could be the best team in the Atlantic 10. They were close enough. There was a lot there, it turned out. Martelli's team made it happen, finishing 24-7 as it begins A-10 Tournament play in Friday's quarterfinals (2:30 p.m.) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., against George Washington (23-9), which beat St. Louis, 73-65, on Thursday.

SJU won just 13 games last season because it could not score, getting less than 60 points 12 times. This season, the Hawks have never gotten fewer than 60.

Junior star DeAndre' Bembry, the A-10 Player of the Year, was a given, but who would help? Senior forward Zeke Miles remade his body over the summer and his inside/outside game made him one of the A-10's most difficult covers. The role players knew their roles and played them well. But the key was point guard play, a complete unknown when the season began with sophomore Shavar Newkirk and freshman Lamarr Kimble in a dead heat for playing time.

"Those two point guards, the way that they have played, if you match that in 40 minutes from that position and here's what we're getting, it's really impressive," Martelli said.

The Hawks went from 257th in offensive efficiency last season to 53rd this season. They were very hard to watch then, quite pleasing now. The point guards and Bembry have been a big part of that, but Miles changed everything.

"Last year, literally he would try to get out of my eyesight" Martelli said. "Because he was trying to get out of my eyesight, I noticed him all the time . . . He was so different last year he led the country in foul outs."

Miles simply was not in shape and could not keep up with the game. He came back to campus in August in great shape and the game is having trouble keeping up with him, finishing the regular season with great numbers (18.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 52.8 percent shooting, 87.6 percent from the foul line).

Even though nobody expected 24 wins or that these Hawks would be the last team to lose a road game, the reality is that last season was the aberration. Since SJU got really good when Jameer Nelson showed up on campus in 2000, it has had just three losing seasons. The record in the four seasons surrounding last year's 13-18 is 86-45.

SJU won the 2014 A-10 Tournament. That team had a knockdown shooter in Langston Galloway who is in his second season with the Knicks, as well as terrific frontcourt players in Ron Roberts and Halil Kanacevic. This team is made differently. These Hawks don't foul; they defend the three-point line, they have really been pretty consistent all season and their star (Bembry) is also their leader.

"That kid's leadership is amazing," Martelli said. "His numbers aren't as good as they were last year. DeAndre' is getting more hype because the team is winning . . . He drills these guys every day in practice." When his teammates are not talking on defense, Bembry tells them they have to get out of the game.

It is concerning that they gave up 99 at Davidson and 98 at St. Bonaventure in late-season road losses. But it is also true that Davidson lived at the free throw line and the Bonnies' Marcus Posley went off for 47 points, a Division I high this season, the very definition of an aberration. The bizarre home loss to 14-point underdog Duquesne on Saturday was a little less explainable. Martelli said his team is in a defensive "slump."

The Hawks' NCAA chances, a near-lock before the Duquesne loss (which looks even worse after La Salle put up 88 on the Dukes Wednesday night), are a bit more tenuous so they just need to win as many tournament games as possible and see where they land. Whatever the ending, hardly anybody saw this season coming, including the coach. That changed on the first night of December. Now, St. Joe's plays March games that matter.


jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi