PHIL MARTELLI sits at midcourt at Hagan Arena after Monday's practice, hunching forward in his chair while eating a bag of pretzels. Practice wrapped up moments ago, and it had its share of teaching moments, but he's not discouraged.
Just a year ago this Sunday, his Saint Joseph's team was cutting down the nets at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. The Hawks were Atlantic 10 champions after entering the conference tournament as the fourth seed.
They went on to dance with the best of the best in March Madness, giving eventual champion Connecticut all it could handle in a first-round overtime loss.
But that was with a senior-laden starting lineup featuring Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic.
It's sort of a microcosm of what life in college basketball really is. Just 1 year later, one recruiting class later, how different it can be.
These Hawks, a group with one starting senior, Chris Wilson, star sophomore DeAndre' Bembry - a first-team all-conference forward who is the first Hawk to lead the A-10 in scoring (17.9 points per game) - and a platoon of largely inexperienced players, will head to Barclays in a much different position. They're 13-17 overall, 7-11 in conference and narrowly missed - by a game - having to play in today's A-10 preliminary round.
A 10-seed, the Hawks will play No. 7 St. Bonaventure tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.
Discouraged? Not a chance.
"I'm disappointed, but clearly not discouraged because of the quality of their character," said Martelli, in his 20th year on Hawk Hill. "That's been the saving grace. They're games, yeah, we have a lot to do, a lot of work to do. And we're going to do that."
It has to be a little taxing, though, no?
"Not physically, not mentally, not emotionally, nope," Martelli said. "Because it's a good group. And I've tried not to, at any point in time, compromise by saying, 'Well, isn't this inevitable?' I don't want the players to accept that, I don't want the fans to accept that. It's not inevitable. We're always striving to do more and to improve each day. It's certainly a learning experience. And that's a good thing, 20 years in, to still say, 'Yeah, I learned this was a good way to practice.' Maybe 2 years, 3 years ago I wouldn't have done that."
Exactly what Martelli was dealing with this year was on display just three games into the season, when the Hawks took a 1-1 record to Spokane, Wash., to take on the Gonzaga juggernaut.
The Zags raced them off the floor in a 94-42 beatdown, the largest margin of defeat since Martelli took the reins.
But they turned around and won two straight. And then they lost a game, beat Temple, lost to Villanova, won two straight and lost four in a row.
Part of that level of inconsistency was expected, with point guard Wilson and Bembry being the only two returning starters teamed with freshman shooting guard James Demery, junior forward Isaiah Miles and redshirt sophomore Javon Baumann.
Add into that mix freshman guard Shavar Newkirk and transfer junior forward Aaron Brown, and you had a group that never had sustained minutes together on a court heading into this year.
"It's been a struggle," Demery said. "We didn't win a lot of games like we thought we were going to, but it's a learning process. As a team, we're growing each and every day in practice. We just have to have more time playing with each other."
"I think the biggest number is we haven't won three games in a row all year," Martelli said. "That's the biggest thing. We're not trying to go [to Brooklyn] and win four games. We're trying to win one game. Then you catch your breath, get in the hotel and prepare."
Oddly enough, Martelli isn't even thinking about last year's title run as he heads into this week's opportunity.
"We're not going up there to defend a title because, what, are they going to take it from us?" he said. "It's ours. We won it. We have the trophy, we have the rings, we have the nets. I just think for this group, to want to play one more game together, that's what we're trying to do. Play and practice one more day. I also am keenly aware that when you shoot as poorly as we've shot all year, you could be a 30 percent game away from going home."