The St. Joseph's team that coach Phil Martelli brings to Omaha to play Creighton on Saturday is adjusting to a different on-court role this season.
The Hawks were the preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10, a conference some observers believe could place four or five teams in March's NCAA tournament. St. Joseph's no longer can be content to hunt big-game victories as it now finds itself as the hunted.
“That's something we've talked about with this group,” Martelli said in a Thursday telephone interview from Philadelphia. “It's a different view, but it's a view of what others think that we could do or should do.
“It's not necessarily our expectations. Those haven't change. In fact, I haven't changed anything. Practice is still the same. This is a group that still has a lot to work on, but it's a group that's not afraid to work. It's a good group.”
It's a group with six players averaging at least 10 points in a 4-1 start. One that already has knocked off one ranked team, beating then-No. 20 Notre Dame in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on a neutral court.
After that game, Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey was asked about St. Joseph's athletic front line of Ronald Roberts, C.J. Aiken and Halil Kanacevic.
“I was trying to think of someone in our league that gives us that look,” Brey said, “and the only one I could think of was Syracuse.”
That trio is averaging 33.5 points and 22.6 rebounds per game, and it might not be the true strength of Martelli's squad. Creighton knows full well the danger posed by the backcourt of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, who combined for 41 points in the Hawks' 80-71 victory over the Bluejays last season.
Jones, suspended for the first two games of the season, is averaging 17.7 points per game. Galloway is averaging 13.4 points and became a 1,000-point career scorer in Wednesday's victory over American.
St. Joseph's also is getting 10 points a game from sophomore Chris Wilson, whose development in the offseason earned Martelli's praise.
“Chris Wilson was a freshman in every way, shape and form last year,” Martelli said. “This year, he's more than a sophomore. He's started this first stretch of games but likely will settle in as our sixth man.”
That role was Roberts' last season, and he played it well enough to earn the league's sixth man of the year award.
“The thing about Ronald is that he worked so hard in the offseason,” Martelli said, “that we had to find a way to start him.”
St. Joseph's will catch the No. 11 Bluejays coming off a loss to Boise State on Wednesday. Martelli said that outcome is unlikely to change how Creighton approaches Saturday's game against the only nonconference team to beat the Bluejays last season.
“I've always viewed games as being separate entities,” he said. “Last night's entity was that Boise did a little more right than Creighton. I don't really react to the result because I've watched three other games that they've played and I know how good they are.”
This will be the third straight season in which Creighton and St. Joseph's have played.
“The difference I see now compared to a year ago is this is a team that has confidence across the board,” Martelli said. “This isn't a solo act. Doug (McDermott) is a marvelous player, an All-American that belongs in any conversation for player of the year.
“But I look at their other guys and I see a confidence about them. Last year when we played them, they were kind of like puppies. It was like they thought they were pretty good. This year, they don't think they're good, they know they're good. And they play like that.”
St. Joseph's win over Notre Dame and its loss to Florida State came on neutral courts. The Hawks' visit to CenturyLink Center is their first true road game of the season, and Martelli said it could provide a gauge of just how ready his team is to embrace its role as a conference favorite.
“This group has grown up and is more mature,” Martelli said. “The one concern that I still have is what happens when get punched right in the nose. How will we respond?”
Notre Dame had the Hawks down by seven points and they rallied to win. American led by eight before the Hawks roared back to post a 74-55 win.
“We've had some optimistic signs, but it's still November,” Martelli said. “I want to see what happens if Creighton gets us down. I want to see that urgency that good teams possess.”
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