PHIL MARTELLI spoke with Gonzaga coach Mark Few Monday night to set up a practice time in Spokane, Wash.

"Congrats, one of the great turnarounds of the year, other than the kid with the Afro you must have a whole new team," Few said to the Saint Joseph's coach.

The last time Few saw St. Joe's in person, the Hawks were in the same Gonzaga gym where they will be practicing on Thursday to get ready for Friday night's NCAA first-round game with Cincinnati at downtown Spokane Arena. It was Nov. 19, 2014. It was 48-10 at halftime on the way to 60-11. It ended 94-42, the worst loss in SJU history.

"No, Mark, this is the same group with two freshmen in the mix," Martelli told his good friend.

"No bleeping way, are you being voted coach of the year?" Few said. "That group could not shoot at all."

Few's memory was spot on. And this Hawks team really is 27-7, with largely the same cast and, as Martelli said, two freshmen who have helped but are nowhere near stars.

Later, Few left a voice mail to set up the gym time and said: "Greatest coach in the history of college basketball. If you got that team I saw last year on this floor to (27) wins or whatever this year, you are the greatest coach in the history of the game. Wow."

As Martelli was revealing his interaction with Few, he texted, "That conversation had me laughing at how beautifully absurd this really is."

He also hopes his team doesn't "break out in hives when we practice at Gonzaga."

The unexpected is, after all, one of the reasons we watch. Even when we think we know, we often find out we don't.

After an early-morning practice Wednesday at Hagan Arena, the St. Joe's team will head for the airport to catch a charter to Spokane. By the time the Hawks jump it up around 10 p.m. Friday, there will be just 36 teams left in the 68-team bracket.

They got back on the practice court Tuesday afternoon for the first time since beating VCU to win the Atlantic 10 championship Sunday in Brooklyn. Hawks star DeAndre' Bembry, the kid with the Afro, was, as usual, the loudest voice, encouraging, teaching, calling out screens in a 5-on-5, finishing every drill hard.

The team had come from a film session where it got its first look at the Bearcats. Martelli had been on Cincinnati radio early in the day where he used a descriptive analogy to explain the opponent.

"I don't go to clubs, but I would never sneak into clubs where these guys are going to be the bouncers," he said. "They treat the basket like it's the club and unless you have the proper ID and the cover charge, you ain't getting in.

"Their size is incredible. Their matchup (zone) is different than any matchup that we've seen because their coach (Mick Cronin) is insistent on maximum effort on every play and that's exactly what he gets. Their defensive numbers are really astounding . . . It's a daunting task, but one I'm really looking forward to."

Unlike the offensively challenged team that Few saw last season, these Hawks have put up big numbers, averaging 77.6 points per game, nearly 16 points better than last season's 61.7 points.

Isaiah Miles is the main reason the team Few saw does not at all resemble the team heading west. The senior has scored 626 points this season, more than in his first three seasons combined (444 points). He was the MVP of the A-10 Tournament. And he is not remotely satisfied.

"We've been hoping for recognition this whole season and now we're finally getting it," Miles said. "It's time to put up or shut up. basically, time to show what we can do."

Martelli has certainly proved over time that he can get his team prepared for NCAA games. His Hawks have six NCAA wins. Even when they did not win, they had a chance to win every time but one (blitzed by Kentucky in the 1997 Sweet 16) - two overtime losses, losing a late lead to No. 1 seed Stanford, playing Blake Griffin and Oklahoma tough and, of course, the brutal two-point loss to Oklahoma State, seconds from the 2004 Final Four.

The coach knows when to get involved and when to back off. Martelli will have his team ready.

"When we get there Wednesday afternoon, we're going to eat and we're going to tell them they have to get out of the hotel, go with a teammate for a couple of hours," Martelli said.

And then they will wake up Thursday, another night and a very long day from an NCAA date with Cincinnati.

@DickJerardi