By PAUL GOTHAM
BROOKLYN — Most coaches try to eliminate the noise. Phil Martelli embraced it. Then again, this wasn’t the usual cacophony.
“It was the noise,” Martelli said after Saint Joseph’s 87-74 victory over Virginia Commonwealth University in the 2016 Atlantic 10 Championship final. “Every time I was around them there was noise. Now, whether it was laughter, whether it was talk about how to play, talk about how to make a play. The noise. And it’s continued all year long.”
Saint Joseph’s went from 7-11 and 10th in the conference a year ago, to Number 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament later this week. For the 21st-year coach, the improvement had as much to do with what happened off the court as what happened on the hardwood.
“Ed Rush, the great NBA official came, brought his grandson for like a birthday party, and he said to me, ‘it’s January, and most teams are like in their own little bubble.’ Each kid is in his own little bubble,” Martelli continued. “‘These guys are talking and excited like they all just made the team.’ That’s what it was. It was the noise around them.
“Every NBA team that came in, half of those NBA guys are at least acquaintances of mine if not more, and they would all say the same thing, man, your team really likes to play, they really like to play together.”
The result was Martelli could “coach” his team rather than “manage” it.
“A lot of times you manage egos, cliques, expectations, but I was able to coach these guys from August on, and not alone,” Martelli explained. “My assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit.”
Oh sure, there was the usual noise that coaches have to eliminate – the effects of social media or listening to the opinions of others outside the group. It’s impossible to be immune from that. Martelli’s group solved that from within. That helped as the Hawks lost two straight and three of five late in conference play – the last setback a 78-70 loss at home to Duquesne. Martelli leaned on his leader, DeAndre’ Bembry.
“The Duquesne game, I couldn’t explain it. When we started on Tuesday, once we reviewed the Duquesne game, I just moved on and said, okay, here’s what we’re going to do.
“I took a second to speak to DeAndre’, and he did what he’s done for all three years that I’ve had him, and he just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got it. We’ve got it. It’s all right.’ And it’s not false with him.”
Bembry led Saint Joseph’s a year ago in points (17.7), rebounds (7.7), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). The junior forward accepted fewer shots and scored less this season allowing teammates like Isaiah Miles (18.4 ppg/8.1 rpg) and Aaron Brown (10.3 ppg) to flourish in their roles. Miles earned A-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Brown averaged 16 points over the three games in Brooklyn.
“DeAndre’ is like the coolest dude, old spirit, and he was in tears on the court,” Martelli said of his captain’s reaction after the championship victory.
Saint Joseph’s rallied from 16 down to beat George Washington 86-80 in the conference quarter-finals. Next day the Hawks knocked off Dayton, 82-79 before outlasting VCU for the school’s fourth post-season conference title.
“Look, championships are forever, okay,” Martelli said. “So whether they want to get tatted up or not get tatted up, they have a tattoo now. Every kid on that team, 2016 Atlantic 10 champions. That’s their tattoo. That’s theirs.”
Saint Joseph’s will play Cincinnati (22-10/12-6) of the American Athletic Conference in the first round of the West Region at Spokane, Washington. The Hawks will be making their 21st NCAA Tournament appearance in program history and seventh under Martelli.