It wasn't just how bad the loss was for Saint Joseph's, but who it came against.
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. (Photo courtesy Sideline Photos)
On Dec. 7, the Hawks lost 98-68 to Villanova in a game where they only trailed by four at halftime. The 30-point defeat was reason enough for concern, but it just made it worse that it was to the Wildcats. This was the “Holy War,” arguably the fiercest rivalry in the Philadelphia Big 5, and 30-point losses don't fly in the “Holy War.”
And it wasn't even the only loss to a Philadelphia school that week. St. Joe's lost to Temple three days earlier. One Big 5 loss was bad enough. Two in one week? Forget about it.
“When you lose Philadelphia games, it's more than just a loss,” St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said in this week's Atlantic 10 coaches conference call. “There's a serious psychological blow that occurs.
“When you play a rivalry game and you get it handed to you like that, a lot of people abandon ship.”
He wasn't lying.
Even before the team's loss to Villanova, fans had begun calling for Martelli's head. The website PhilMustGo.com was launched in an effort to oust the 19th-year coach who had won the 2004 National Coach of the Year award and guided the Hawks to an Elite Eight appearance that season.
Since then, though, St. Joe's has suffered from a whole lot of mediocrity and unfulfilled expectations. The Hawks have just one NCAA Tournament appearance since their Elite Eight season and have finished no higher than fifth in the Atlantic 10 since winning the regular-season title in 2005.
There may have been no bigger disappointment than last season.
With all five of its starters returning from the season before, St. Joe's was picked to win the Atlantic 10 in 2012-13. But the Hawks floundered under the heavy expectations set upon them, went 18-14 and finished 10th with an NIT appearance. Forward Halil Kanacevic's obscene gesture to the Villanova student section early in the season was a microcosm for a season that went terribly wrong for St. Joe's.
Flash forward a season later, and patience is clearly wearing thin on Hawk Hill, but there is hope.
Since the Hawks' debacle against the Wildcats a month ago, they have responded with a five-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night's conference opener at UMass that has probably saved their season. None of the victories were particularly impressive, but wins are wins when you're a team like St. Joe's that was desperately searching for positives.
“We had to just zero in on what was today, where we could get better, and make sure that we stayed tight as a unit,” Martelli said. “We didn't measure ourselves and just say, well there it is, it's a lost year.
“The players deserve all the credit. They hung in.”
Talent has never been an issue for the Hawks, who have plenty of it this season. Senior guard Langston Galloway is the star of the show, leading the team in scoring at 16.9 points per game. He can score inside and especially from outside, where he's shooting 44.3 percent from long range.
It's not just Galloway, though. St. Joe's boasts a stable of athletic guards and forwards that can keep them in any game. Senior forwards Ronald Roberts, Jr. and Halil Kanacevic are experienced and ready for any challenge, junior guard Chris Wilson is a proven scorer and DeAndre Bembry is emerging as one of the best freshmen in the league.
The question now is whether or not the Hawks can put all of those pieces together and finally make the run to the Big Dance that they have long been waiting for. The senior leadership is there, the talent is there and the proven coach is there to do it. And unlike last season, there are no expectations for success, which could bode well for this group.
For now, the Hawks, figuratively, are flying under the radar. And with the pain of a disappointing season that bled into the early stages of this season seemingly now behind them, don't be surprised if that changes sometime soon.
Have a UMass basketball question for Steve Hewitt? Send him a tweet @steve_hewitt or send him an email at email@example.com and it could appear in an upcoming mailbag.
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