AS THEY HEAD to Richmond for Saturday's Atlantic 10 opener, this Saint Joseph's team has put itself on the periphery of postseason conversation. After a predictably sluggish effort, following a week without a game and three days without any basketball, the Hawks eventually put away game Maryland Eastern Shore on Tuesday night at Hagan Arena, winning, 78-68.
Except for a game against Penn as part of the Big 5 Palestra doubleheader on Jan. 20, St. Joe's (10-2) is all A-10 from here to the regular-season finish line. If the Hawks can win, say, 11 or 12 A-10 games (no easy feat in a strong league), they would definitely get long looks from those committees that decide who gets to keep playing after the conference tournaments.
"I've said since August it was a good team," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "Whether or not we can be good in basketball, that's still to be determined. We have 19 games to find out whether we're good enough, but the approach and feeling around them is positive. I want to give them everything that I have, so we can keep this going."
UMES (3-11) was playing its 11th road game as one of college hoops designated opponents, picking up guaranteed money in November and December to lose at Kansas State, Missouri, Michigan State and Maryland, among other places.
"You don't play the schedule that they play and come in here and think, 'My God, it's St. Joe's and Atlantic 10 . . . " Martelli said. "They're extraordinarily well coached."
Even though the home Hawks had very little juice early, they still led, 33-19, with four minutes left in the first half. The "other" Hawks started raining in threes and closed to 36-33 at the break. St. Joe's was shooting only 37.5 percent and had nine turnovers.
UMES made 13 of its first 18 second-half shots to keep SJU uncomfortable, but the Hawks always held a working margin they nursed to the wire, while committing only two more turnovers.
"Learning from losing has never been a big thing with me," Martelli said. "I'd rather learn from winning."
St. Joe's has many of the same players as last season, when 10 of its 18 losses were by seven points or fewer. Senior Isaiah Miles is not the same player. Leading the team in scoring and rebounding and coming off a career game (36 points, 15 rebounds) a week ago against Virginia Tech, Miles, like his teammates, was not as sharp as he had been. But he was still good enough to score 17 points, despite foul trouble.
"We have so many more options this season than we did last season," said Miles, who would understand that best.
DeAndre' Bembry, after missing six of his first seven shots, got loose for 15 points, nine rebounds and a reverse slam in traffic. James Demery came off the bench to get 11 points and the game's signature play, a ridiculous follow dunk.
Martelli looks at numbers in six-game stretches. This was the Hawks' sixth straight win. Now they have to hope opponents such as Florida and Villanova (their only two losses), as well as Temple, Virginia Tech, Illinois State, Old Dominion, Princeton and Columbia (the last two among the Ivy favorites) have good conference seasons to help polish a resume that is nice, but far from dazzling. It will come down to the 18 A-10 games, but, for a team that won only 13 games a season ago, 10 wins by the New Year is a very nice start.
"You make your statement always at Saint Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 so let's go," Martelli said. "We have 18 chances to make our statement."