All it takes is practice to get to Carnegie Hall, but a basketball team that wants to get to the Palestra usually needs a bus.
That proved challenging for St. Joseph's University on Thursday night, more challenging in fact than what awaited the Hawks in the ancient arena.
"We were late getting here. We couldn't get out of our own parking lot. The security guard told us it was one-way and we weren't allowed out of the lot we've been coming out of forever. The guy was just confused," coach Phil Martelli said. "Then our bus driver missed the turn and ended up on Spruce Street, bumper to bumper. Took us 20 minutes to get from the expressway to here. I was a little worried."
Martelli says he is a creature of habit. The events leading up to Thursday's 92-76 win over Temple didn't do anything for his disposition, but the game eased his mind a little. The Hawks weaved effortlessly through the traffic of Temple's defense and gave the kind of overall performance that can lend a coach hope at this time of year.
"When your team gets to a certain point, when you're really good, you kind of know what to expect," Martelli said. "I don't know what to expect possession by possession."
That is the nature of having a young team, and Martelli's Hawks start two freshmen and a sophomore, with two other freshmen getting the bulk of the bench minutes. The four freshmen are the guards. They like to run quickly and try difficult maneuvers. This is not always a recipe for success, but it keeps things interesting.
The Hawks have won five of their last six games heading into a game tonight at Richmond. They have 17 wins and a decent seeding for the coming Atlantic Ten tournament.
The temptation is to say that this is all very nice, but next season is when it makes the most sense to pay attention to St. Joseph's. True enough, but it overlooks the fact that the Hawks present an odd set of challenges for opponents at a time of year when being different can be a very good thing.
The capital X in the X-factor is swingman Pat Calathes, a 6-foot-10 junior who has outgrown his natural guard position without losing the ballhandling and passing ability that makes him special. Calathes, who also had a very nice shooting touch from range, scored a career-high 27 points against the Owls, adding seven assists, seven rebounds, and another line in the box score that he liked even more than the others.
"How many turns?" a teammate shouted across the cramped Palestra locker room as Calathes studied the stat sheet Thursday night. Calathes held up a single finger and grinned a goofy grin. One turnover.
Calathes, along with the others, is becoming more comfortable and instinctual with the motion offense that Martelli prefers. When the Hawks need to use a structured half-court call, they can be a tad mechanical. When they create a flow and react to the opportunities that are presented, the offense can achieve a rhythm that is part the thumping bass notes of 6-9 Ahmad Nivins in the low post and part the crashing cymbals of sharp perimeter shooting.
Against Temple, the Hawks got into one of those rhythms midway through the first half - with the score tied 21-21 - and didn't let up until the score was 67-37 midway through the second. Calathes scored 15 of his points in that run, with an array of shots that included three three-pointers, a fadeaway jumper, and a hard drive into the lane for a soft pull-up shot. If there was a way to defend him, the Owls didn't find it.
"He's getting to be as good a player as there is in this area," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said, and there's little argument about that.
Martelli still harps on Calathes' need to play better defense (and to limit his turnovers), but in any conversation about the best local college players - one that includes Curtis Sumpter, Scottie Reynolds, Mark Zoller, Ibby Jaaber, Frank Elegar and Dionte Christmas - it won't take long to mention Calathes.
"The coaches work with me on everything I do," Calathes said. "They show me a breakdown tape of my whole game and what I need to work on. Where I'm not moving right away, where I'm not cutting, where I'm holding the ball. Pretty much every aspect of my game."
Calathes, who was a 5-10 point guard as a high school freshman but had shot up to 6-7 when St. Joseph's recruited him two years later, takes the instruction willingly, and the improvement has been obvious.
"The only thing I'm looking for from him is this part of the game," Martelli said, pointing a finger at the side of his head. "He's a gym rat. He's in the gym all the time, and he has the physical skills. Now he's starting to understand that scoring is the result of good basketball. We're not easy on him. We don't say, 'OK, that's good enough.' We stay on him."
Opponents trying to stop Calathes have a difficult choice between guarding him with a tall player, thus losing some rebounding underneath and speed on the perimeter, or with a shorter one, over whom Calathes can easily shoot or pass. Making life difficult for the other team is what March is all about, and the Hawks are capable of doing just that.
Now if they can just get out of the parking lot, everything else might fall into place, too.
Tonight at 7.
Radio: WNTP-AM (990).