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Saint Joseph’s Phil Martelli recalls thrills, regrets of unbeaten ride that faces Zags

February 20, 2017

There aren’t many people on the planet who can relate to Gonzaga’s run at an unbeaten regular season.

Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli is one of them.

During Mark Few’s 18 years as head coach at Gonzaga, only Saint Joseph’s in 2004, Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015 navigated the regular season with a zero in the loss column. No. 1 Gonzaga (28-0) is two wins – at San Diego on Thursday, vs. BYU on Saturday – from joining that select company.

Others came close. Illinois (29-0) fell to Ohio State in the 2005 regular-season finale. Memphis lost to Tennessee, ending a 26-0 start in 2008.

Saint Joseph’s magical season opened with Martelli’s 17th-ranked squad beating No. 10 Gonzaga 73-66 in Madison Square Garden.

“I remember marveling that it was fiercely competitive so early in the season,” Martelli said. “And the other thing was after the game, Dick Vitale was in the hallways yelling that it was like an (NCAA) regional game. I was like, ‘Man, this is early in the year to be hyping games.’ ”

It was actually good preparation for what followed over the next four-plus months. Eventual player of the year Jameer Nelson, backcourt mate Delonte West, shooting guard Pat Carroll and center Dwayne Jones took Martelli on a 27-0 regular-season joyride.

Saint Joseph’s had eight regular-season games decided by single digits. The Hawks won by two over Cal and Rhode Island, by three against Old Dominion and took down Boston College and Villanova of the Big East.

As the wins accumulated, Hawks’ players were not only the big men on campus, but also at the mall and movie theaters. Martelli has always held open practices but crowds grew from a dozen to more than 100, and most wanted autographs and/or pictures.

One of the few rules Martelli instituted was having his players go directly to the locker room after practice without signing for fans.

A Sports Illustrated cover story on Nelson brought another level of publicity for the star guard and the program. The school hired a security guard for road trips, primarily to help Nelson get through airports and hotel lobbies.

“The amount of attention made you scratch your head,” Martelli said.

Still, Saint Joseph’s got off light in terms of social media and traditional media coverage compared to the unbeaten runs of Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga. Facebook was founded in February, 2004. Twitter came along two years later, iPhones debuted in 2007.

“We didn’t have to deal with Twitter, social media, the rumors and all this other stuff,” said Martelli, who has exchanged texts with Few. “I think it’s much more challenging doing what they’re doing than what we did, and I’m not diminishing what we did at all.”

Martelli collected advice from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma on dealing with long winning streaks, packed arenas and autograph hounds.

Xavier handed the Hawks their first lost in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Martelli remembers an early afternoon start time in front of a smaller crowd, but the biggest factor was Xavier had an excellent team.

Vitale and CBS’s Billy Packer questioned if the Hawks should be a No. 1 seed. Predictable arguments surfaced about facing weaker competition in the A-10.

“We had four teams in the NCAA tournament, Xavier made it to the Elite Eight, too,” said Martelli, whose No. 1-seeed team was eliminated by Oklahoma State 64-62 on John Lucas III’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds. “That’s the one that gets me, just drives me completely nutty. ‘Well, if they were in the ACC they would finish .500.’

“They have wonderful players at Gonzaga. If they were in the ACC, that’s not the players they would have. They would have the other players, and the individual instruction, the Xs and Os in Mark’s program is extraordinary.”

Asked if he would have done anything differently in retrospect, Martelli said he might have driven his players harder in practice.

“But the biggest thing that sits with me to this day is whether or not those players really understood what they were doing and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Whether they really appreciated what they did for each other, myself, for the program and the school, because it was a measuring stick for what a team should look like, play like and act like.”

In that regard, Gonzaga seems to be right on track.

“It seems like a long season but it’s kind of been really fast and that’s because we’ve had so much fun with each other,” GU freshman center Zach Collins said. “Coach has been harping on us last couple weeks to enjoy it because these are the best times of our lives.”