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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

The Thrill Will Be Gone for Somebody

Saint Joseph's and Oklahoma State are both feel-good stories, but one has to lose today.

March 27, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Believe it or not, Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli did not sleep better than CBS announcer Billy Packer did Thursday night.

In fact, as snooze time goes, Martelli bagged the equivalent to one episode of "60 Minutes."

After Saint Joe's defeated Wake Forest to advance to today's East Rutherford Regional final against Oklahoma State, Martelli retreated to his hotel room, returned a few phone calls, started film work at 3 a.m. and finally hit the sack at 8:15.

When his alarm sounded an hour later, Martelli awoke from a short dream to the resumption of a dream season and all the glory it entails.

"I would only suggest that, once in your life, you should see the sunrise in Secaucus," Martelli joked. "I can now describe that to you."

Tired?

You bet.

Red-eyed?

Pass the Visine.

He and his Hawks ready to resume their roles as this year's most captivating NCAA tournament story?

In a New Jersey minute.

The Saint Joe's story, like "Old Man River," just keeps on rolling along, orchestrated by the talented and manipulative Martelli, a balding 50-year-old coach and Coney Island-like pitchman who is a dead ringer for a young Peter Boyle.

A lot of NCAA teams act as if they've been here before. Duke probably books its hotel reservations a year in advance.

Every once in a while, though, you get a Saint Joe's, a little team that could, with players who know, really know, what a thrill it is to be here.

Friday, several Hawk players, seated on the standard-issue NCAA news conference podium, did something few NCAA players do in these press-conference situations.

They had fun.

It wasn't the Beatles landing in the United States -- "How did you find America?" John Lennon: "Turn left at Greenland" -- yet, it had the same infectious quality.

John Bryant, the quiet Hawk who receives little publicity, playfully tapped his microphone just to make sure reporters knew it was working.

A reporter asked the players to describe their coach, Martelli.

"I love my coach," guard Delonte West answered in mock response.

Chimed in star guard Jameer Nelson, "I really don't think of Coach Martelli as a good coach."

Martelli, who had grabbed a pen from the moderator, started to jot down notes in the manner of one who was taking down names and numbers.

How could this not be fun?

Saint Joe's, a tiny Jesuit school in Philadelphia, is 30-1 and one game from the Final Four.

Martelli has made headlines by publicly defending his team against outsiders, "naysayers" as he calls them, who have dismissed the measured-against-history greatness of his team.

Martelli said Friday that the Hawks weren't in this for us. They're in this for them.

"Don't cheer for us," Martelli said. "Don't jump up and down. This isn't the best thing ever to happen to college basketball. But, man, this is really some story in a year after coming off of what we came through last year in college basketball, that I believe should be celebrated and applauded."

The problem with today's game against Oklahoma State is that there are two good stories working.

Oklahoma State, at 30-3, is living out its own fantasy. This is a team pieced together by a 68-year-old coach, Eddie Sutton, who has done everything in a career except win a national tile.

This is a team that, three years ago, was devastated by a plane crash that killed 10 members of its basketball family.

It's a team that features a transfer, guard John Lucas, who last year lived through the hell of a Baylor program scandalized by the murder of a player and a subsequent cover-up by the coach.

Lucas said Friday he was psychologically wounded when he arrived in Stillwater last summer.

"I came in from the tragedy at Baylor," he said. "First thing I really wanted to do was make sure I knew all my teammates the best I could, love them like they're my own little brother or my older brother."

Saint Joe's against Oklahoma State has a little bit of everything -- comedy, drama, intrigue. It will match perhaps the nation's two best backcourts, with the Hawks' Nelson and West taking on the Cowboys' Lucas and Tony Allen.

Allen couldn't help but laugh when asked how his team was going to deal with Saint Joe's quickness.

Allen said basketball was really a simple game, complicated by outsiders.

"You can be faster than Carl Lewis, but that's not going to boil down to buckets," he said.

Sutton, who has seen it all, rubbed his chin and had to agree, the game really does come down to which team makes more baskets.

"I like that, 'buckets,' " Sutton said. "I had never heard that before."

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