By Tim Casey
Ten years later, the verbal tussle between Saint Joseph's basketball coach Phil Martelli and CBS broadcaster Billy Packer remains a memory the school's players, staff and fans reflect upon with delight and admiration. The argument about whether a school from an unheralded league can compete with power conference teams has come up again as another unlikely program has had a breakthrough season.
Until Wichita State finished its regular season undefeated on Saturday, no Division I men's team had entered its conference tournament without a loss since Saint Joseph's in 2004. Like now, with some questioning if Wichita State deserves a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, the same debate a decade ago centered on Saint Joseph's.
When the Hawks lost by 20 points to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament and dropped to 27-1, the critics became even louder. The most vocal was Packer. After the brackets were announced, he told viewers Saint Joseph's should not have received the East Rutherford (N.J.) region's top seed. Martelli wasn't happy.
"Being perfectly blunt, Billy Packer can kiss my ass," he told fans gathered at the school on Selection Sunday.
The two argued back and forth. Martelli defended his team's credentials and noted Packer hadn't seen Saint Joseph's play all season. Packer ripped the Hawks' conference and mediocre history, as if that had any relevance to the current situation. They eventually made up, yet everyone affiliated with Saint Joseph's appreciated Martelli's candor.
"That's coach Martelli -- he's always going to stick up for his players," said Pat Carroll, a junior starter on the 2004 team. "I think we absolutely deserved the number one seed… I thought it was pretty amusing, but I loved how much he stuck up for us."
Despite losing to Oklahoma State by two points in the Elite Eight, Saint Joseph's exceeded most expectations. The previous season, the Hawks won the Atlantic 10's East division regular season title, finished 23-7 and lost to Auburn in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Two months later, 5-foot-11 junior point guard Jameer Nelson declared for the NBA draft but didn't sign with an agent. He attended the pre-draft camp in Chicago and worked out for several teams before deciding to return to school. With Nelson and three other starters back, Saint Joseph's was 17th in the Associated Press preseason poll.
"We knew we were really, really good," Martelli said. "I'm not one that ever puts a team in a box and says, 'This is a team that should go to the Sweet 16 or this is a team that will go undefeated in the Atlantic 10.' But we didn't surprise ourselves by having a special team."
In their opening game, Hawks upset 10th ranked Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden, the start of a remarkable run. Saint Joseph's faced some difficult challenges, particularly on the road against Old Dominion in November, Cal in December and Rhode Island in late February. Each time, the Hawks pulled out the victory, winning by three, two and two points, respectively.
As Saint Joseph's record remained unblemished, more people became aware of a team featuring arguably the nation's best backcourt in Nelson and junior Delonte West, both of whom would be selected in the first round of the 2004 NBA draft. They also had veteran players in junior guard Pat Carroll, senior guard Tyrone Barley, junior forward Dwayne Jones and junior forward John Bryant along with sophomore guard Chet Stachitas.
Nelson, the consensus national player of the year, made the Feb. 16, 2004 cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption: "Meet Jameer Nelson. The Little Man From The Little School That's Beating Everyone."
"It was unbelievable," said Nelson, who is now in his 10th NBA season, all with the Orlando Magic. "We were the biggest team in Philadelphia at that time, [bigger] than all the professional teams and obviously all of the college teams. Whatever was going on, it was pretty much based around us."
The atmosphere was so unusual, Martelli called Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, an old friend accustomed to handling large crowds and scrutiny. As the Hawks kept winning, numerous media members and dozens of fans sometimes attended practice.
Martelli never considered closing the sessions, but he asked his players not to linger around too long afterward because they could have been overwhelmed. Autograph requests were so frequent that in mid-February Martelli instituted a policy that the team would only sign autographs for charities.
"It became, not a challenge, but a welcome opportunity to manage the players' time," Martelli said. "It really was certainly unique."
Saint Joseph's reached number two in the polls in February behind Stanford, which was also undefeated. When Stanford lost on March 6 in its regular season finale to Washington, Saint Joseph's ascended to the top position for the first time ever.
"Looking back, coming to Saint Joe's, I expected good things to happen but never imagined on that level," said Carroll, who is finishing up his master's degree in organizational development at Saint Joseph's after playing five seasons of professional basketball overseas. "Being ranked No. 1 in the nation was incredible."
Still, not everyone was sold on the Hawks, a notion that bothered Martelli. To any critics, he countered that Saint Joseph's had one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, the Atlantic 10 had four teams in the NCAA tournament and Xavier ended up advancing to the Elite Eight and winning the conference's postseason title after handing the Hawks their first loss of the season.
"That was frustrating, but there was a certain point in time where you go, 'Here's who was scheduled,'" Martelli said. "We lined them up and we beat all of them. My question would have been a lot like my question about Wichita State [this season] -- have you seen them play? If you haven't seen us play or if you haven't seen Wichita State play, then you really can't comment on, 'Well, here's how they would do [in a bigger league].' By the way, if we were in a different conference or if Wichita State was in a different conference, we would be playing with different players."
For all of the attention Saint Joseph's received in 2004, Martelli is glad it occurred in a different media environment.
"I feel for the guys at Wichita State -- I think it's more challenging now," Martelli said. "There's so much more information being disseminated. Some of it's fact and [some is] fiction, if you know what I mean. We were fortunate to have it happen prior to the explosion of social media. There wasn't texting and tweeting and all that kind of stuff."
Ten years later, the 2003-04 season is still special for anyone involved with the school, although the run didn't end as anyone had hoped. Against Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight, Carroll's three-pointer with 29.9 seconds remaining gave Saint Joseph's a one-point lead. Oklahoma State guard John Lucas then made a three on the other end and Nelson's fadeaway jumper hit off the front rim as time expired. Saint Joseph's lost 64-62.
"You want to win, but when you look back on things, you did something special," Nelson said. "Nobody expected us to be where we were."
Most of the players are in touch via a group text message and have recently followed this season's team, which could make the NCAA tournament. Martelli is in contact with several players, including Nelson, who works out at Saint Joseph's during the summer. Last June, Nelson invited Martelli and his wife to his house in Philadelphia during the U.S. Open golf tournament.
Nearly every day during the season, someone mentions the 2003-04 team to Martelli. He's glad to recall a time when a small Jesuit school from Philadelphia became college basketball's biggest story.
"To me, they set the standard for what a team should be like," Martelli said. "They did it every day. I don't care if it's at Saint Joseph's, if it's in college basketball or if it's in the city of Philadelphia, I think that the way that team handled the notoriety and the success is a standard. That's what I look fondly back on."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.