HILADELPHIA — St. Joseph's University has chosen tonight's men's basketball game against Massachusetts to honor the powerhouse 1985-86 team that included current UMass coach Bruiser Flint and Geoff Arnold, his assistant.
Flint would then like to repay the Hawks by sending their fans home feeling miserable.
"I root for St. Joseph's all year, except when we play them," Flint said as UMass (13-12, 11-3 Atlantic 10) prepared for tonight's 9:30 visit to the lion's den of sold-out, 3,200-seat Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. "I won't lie — I'll always be a Hawk. But our guys have persevered and played very hard, and to even be in the position we're in is a credit to them."
A win by UMass will force the Atlantic 10 race down to the final weekend. But if St. Joseph's wins, the 18th-ranked Hawks (23-4, 13-1) will clinch the regular-season title outright, and UMass will fall one game behind Xavier (12-3 A-10) in the battle for second place.
Even if UMass wins, the Minutemen will need to beat St. Bonaventure, and hope La Salle upsets St. Joseph's in Saturday's regular-season finales. That would leave the teams tied for first place, and UMass would be declared champion by virtue of winning the head-to-head meeting.
St. Joseph's has won nine straight, and the Hawks are the Atlantic 10 story of the year. Picked for a tie for sixth (with Fordham) in the preseason poll, St. Joseph's teamwork has drawn raves from opposing coaches.
The offense relies on wondrous 6-foot-1 freshman point guard Jameer Nelson (12.2 points, league-leading 6.3 assists per game) and junior guard Marvin O'Connor, who is averaging 21.1 points per game. With 170 assists, Nelson needs seven to break Matt Guokas' 36-year-old school record.
"Jameer brings the head to the body," said Flint, who like Nelson, wore No. 14 in his days as a St. Joseph's point guard. "I knew how good he was, because we tried to recruit him. But I didn't expect they'd be 13-1."
St. Joseph's was 13-16 last year, and the Hawks' last winning season was in 1996-97, when they won the A-10 title and went to the NCAA Sweet 16. With a chance to clinch another title, the league's smallest gym figures to produce bedlam tonight.
"We went there in 1997, I believe with a chance to tie them for first place," Flint said. "(UMass forward) Winston Smith told me he'd never been in an atmosphere like that."
Flint was ejected from that game, but enters tonight with a six-game winning streak against his alma matter, so the Hawks' fans may try to egg him on again.
"The fans will be up close and personal," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "Whatever gum Bruiser is chewing, they'll know the flavor.
"But Bruiser has gotten his guys to sell their souls to the idea of playing fanatical defense," Martelli praised. "Our offense leads the league, but this may be its toughest test.
"We could also spend all day and all night trying to figure ways to stop (UMass guard) Monty Mack, and he'll still score on us," Martelli said. "Their turnaround (from a 2-9 start) has been phenomenal."
Flint knows that to beat St. Joseph's, UMass will have to do it with defense.
"It almost has to be an ugly game, like the game at George Washington Saturday (a 64-56 win Saturday)," he said.
In Atlantic 10 games, UMass is fourth in rebounding margin while St. Joseph's leads the league, with forward Bill Phillips (9.4 per game) second to Xaviers' David West.
The Hawks also lead in assists, but UMass sets the pace in blocked shots with Kitwana Rhymer (2.2 per game) leading all individuals.
This game also probably features the league's two deepest teams. St. Joseph's guard N'aim Crenshaw is considered the A-10's best sixth man, and the Hawks' Alexandre Sazonov is second to Rhymer in blocked shots.
HILADELPHIA - At first, people kept waiting for St. Joseph's to come back to earth.
After being picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10 Conference's preseason men's basketball poll, the Hawks were looked at as the little guy trying to make it at the big guys' table during their surprisingly strong start.
But now, with the season nearly over, St. Joseph's, ranked No. 18 by the Associated Press, is at the head of that table, two games ahead of everybody else in the league. Tonight at 9:30 against the University of Massachusetts, and in front of an ESPN2 national audience, the Hawks can wrap up the league's regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in next week's A-10 Tournament.
The game will be part of Senior Night at Hawk Hill, where St. Joe's is undefeated (10-0). The school will honor its 1985-86 Atlantic 10 Championship team, which included UMass head coach Bruiser Flint and assistant Geoff Arnold.
Sidelights aside, the game shapes up as an interesting matchup.
The Minutemen have taken six consecutive games from their coach's Alma Mater over the past three years. Junior guard Shannon Crooks expects the Hawks to use that as a motivator.
"They're going to be hyped to play in their own gym," Crooks said. "We beat them in the past and they're going to be looking to show that we don't belong on the court with them. We have to go in there and play with the best of our ability. If we want to win the A-10 outright we have to go and get them. We have to approach this like a championship-type game."
As Crooks alluded, the Minutemen technically are still alive in the regular-season title hunt. If they were to upset the Hawks tonight, they would move within a game of St. Joe's. However, UMass (13-12, 11-3 A-10) would need La Salle to pull off a significant shocker over the Hawks Saturday as well.
"We want to be one of the top two or three teams in the conference," Flint said. "If we can pull this off and beat St. Joe's and put pressure on them, if they lose again, we're conference champs."
More realistically, if the Minutemen win one of their final two games, they would sew up at least the No. 3 seed in the A-10 Tournament.
Senior forward Winston Smith said the winner of this game will have an edge going into the postseason.
"If we win this game in their gym, that's going to give us a boost in the A-10 Tournament," Smith said. "It puts a little fear in their heart that we can play with them."
The game will showcase some pretty interesting matchups.
Monty Mack and Marvin O'Connor are the league's top scoring guards at 19.5 and 21.1 points per game respectively. Both are prime candidates for the Atlantic 10's Player of the Year award.
Whether they'll guard each other remains to be seen. Crooks has regularly defended the opponent's top guard. He expressed a healthy respect for O'Connor after UMass' win over George Washington.
"He's playing real well," Crooks said. "He might be one of the tougher ones out there."
The question is, while O'Connor might be a Player of the Year possibility, is he his team's best guard? The other candidate is freshman point guard Jameer Nelson. The much-raved-about rookie floor general has been brilliant in his first season. His leadership and passing skills (A-10-best 6.3 assists per game) have helped make the Hawks a contender.
Flint may opt to put Crooks on Nelson to try to disrupt the St. Joe's offense at its origination point.
Up front, the matchups are more obvious. UMass' Kitwana Rhymer and St. Joe's Damian Reid will square up in the middle, and UMass' Micah Brand will face 6-10 forward Bill Phillips at power forward.
"I know he can shoot," Brand said of Phillips. "He's not going to take you off the dribble a lot, but if you leave him open he can knock it down. So I just have to concentrate on making sure he doesn't get off."
Brand, who has struggled lately, said his problems have been about focus.
"I just have to start concentrating and start playing like I was before," Brand said.
Winston Smith will begin the game guarding Hawk small-forward Frank Wilkins, who at 6-foot-9 has 4 inches on Smith. But the Hawks regularly use three guards, using Na'im Crenshaw in place of Wilkins. Crenshaw is a good outside shooter and maybe St. Joe's best perimeter defender.
He highlights a matchup of the best benches in the league. Junior center Alexandre Sazanov is a great shot blocker with 1.93 blocked shots per game. Guards Tyrone Barley and Erick Woods contribute backcourt depth.
The Minutemen counter with size on their bench. Juniors Jackie Rogers and Eric Williams have been solid off the bench inside. Ronell Blizzard can play either forward spot, while senior guard Jonathan DePina has been consistent in the backcourt.
The Hawks are the A-10's top-scoring team at 79.6 points. Flint said the Minutemen can't try to outscore them.
"We have to defend them," Flint said. "It looks like every shot they take is going in. It needs to be an ugly game like it was against George Washington. We need to hold them down."
HILADELPHIA - The shorts are a little longer now and the trim of the uniform is a little flashier, but the No. 14 on the front and back of the tank top is the same.
Fourteen years ago the uniform belonged to Bruiser Flint. Today, freshman Jameer Nelson wears it. Tonight at 9:30 at Hawk Hill, St. Joseph's point guards past and present will be on different sidelines in a building where both have shined.
Flint is now the coach of the Minutemen and Nelson occupies a role Flint once held, as point guard at the Catholic school on Philadelphia's City Avenue.
Nelson has been brilliant for the Hawks. His addition and mature play has taken a St. Joseph's team picked to finish sixth in the preseason and made it a cohesive, impressive unit.
His 6.30 assists per game lead the Atlantic 10 and are 17th best in the nation.
Flint led the A-10 in assists himself in 1986-87 with 6.1 per game. His 171 assists that year are St. Joe's fifth best single-season total, until tonight. Nelson has 170 this year and is comfortably in range of Matt Goukas' single-season best 176 in 1966.
Flint has been impressed with the way Nelson has continued the point-guard tradition at St. Joseph's.
"He brings a head to the body. He puts some guys in good position. He makes a big difference," said Flint. "St. Joe's has always been known as a school that's had some pretty good point guards. Plus, Philly is known for its guards anyway."
While some people have treated Nelson's accomplishments as unexpected, Flint wasn't surprised.
"I knew how good Jameer was because we recruited him," Flint said. "I knew they'd be better because of him. I didn't know they'd be 12-1 in the league."
Flint, who is a member of the St. Joe's athletic hall of fame, is glad if somebody is wearing his old No. 14, and that Nelson is playing well in it.
"Somebody's got to wear it. I always tell this one story. There was a kid that played here after I left who had my number. He wasn't a very good player. My girlfriend was still going to school here," said Flint, who then jokingly imitated his girlfriend's voice. "She said, 'I went to the game, but I'm not going anymore because that kid is awful that got your number."
That's not a problem anymore. The 19-year-old wearing his number is good and tonight at 9:30 at Hawk Hill, Flint will try to slow him down, at least for a night.
n life, there are times when an experience seems so familiar that déja vu are the only appropriate words to describe it. The setting is the same. The feeling is identical. You just know you've seen it all before.
Four years ago, almost to the night, Massachusetts arrived on the St. Joseph's University campus to play a basketball game against the Hawks.
It was a game St. Joe's sort of had to win to validate what already had been an amazing season.
The game was on national television. It would end a little before midnight. The Hawks were going for their 20th win. It was their last game at the Fieldhouse that season. It was senior night.
St. Joe's won that night, 78-63, and the students took over the court when it ended. Anybody who was there will never forget it. It was wild for hours before the game, wilder during the game and nearly as wild when it ended. That season ended nearly a month later in the Sweet 16.
Well, many of the folks who lived that experience will be back tonight fully expecting to relive it. UMass will be on campus. St. Joe's is going for win No. 24 and the outright Atlantic 10 regular-season title. The Hawks are going for their 10th consecutive win.
They are trying to win for the 18th time in 19 games. It is the last Fieldhouse game of this season. It is senior night.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint was finishing his first year as head coach that night four years ago. And, as a former Hawk player, he absolutely knows what the atmosphere will be like tonight.
"I know it's going to be hot," Flint said. "It's always hot in the Fieldhouse."
He hasn't forgotten that 1997 game.
"It was crazy," Flint said. "It was so crazy that one of our players, Winston Smith, who's still on the team now, said, 'I've never been in anything like that.' I'm sure it's going to be the same type of atmosphere."
"Everybody will be up close and personal here," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "Whatever kind of gum Bruiser chooses to chew, a lot of people will know what flavor he has."
Xavier coach Skip Prosser felt the Fieldhouse in 1997. He felt it again three weeks ago.
"It's a gym," Prosser said. "It's not an arena. It's not a convocation center. It's a gym. . .It's different. The locker room obviously is relatively unique. It's small. It's intimate. It's a throwback kind of a place.
"We're thrilled with what we have [the new Cintas Center]. We couldn't play in a gym right now. Too many people want season tickets and things like that.
"The biggest thing about St. Joe's is they have really a good team and really a good coach. If they were playing at the First Union Spectrum or wherever else they could be playing in Philly, they'd be tough to play anyplace. It probably does add a little bit to it in such a small gym."
It has been crazy at the Fieldhouse for the entire month.
"I don't know how it can be [any crazier]," Martelli said. "We're bringing the [A-10 championship] '85-86 team back. . .It should be an atmosphere that hopefully people will never forget."
Flint, who was on that A-10 championship team, follows the Hawks closely.
"I'm a Hawk," Flint said. "Two guys on my staff, Pat Plunkett and Geoff Arnold, they're Hawks."
Flint has noticed a young Hawk wearing No. 14, his No. 14.
That would be freshman point guard Jameer Nelson.
"You've got to be a player to wear that number," Flint said.
The Hawks (23-4, 13-1 Atlantic 10), 18th in the Associated Press poll this week, have a whole team of players. Flint knows that, too.
"They're playing great basketball," Flint said. "Every shot they take looks like it's going in. It's unbelievable."
UMass (13-12, 11-3) has been playing well for nearly two months. This UMass team does what UMass teams have been doing since John Calipari and Flint arrived on campus. They defend.
"Their turnaround has been phenomenal," Martelli said. "Their shooting percentage is dramatically different in their non-league games and their conference games.
"We will not stop Monty Mack. . .He's like a faucet that's broken. He just keeps on coming. . .We have to figure ways to score. . .
"These guys have sold their soul and 'Bru' has gotten them to sell their soul on fanatical - and that would be the only description that's accurate, fanatical - defense."
Tonight, UMass will have to defend the A-10's best offense. And they will have to do it at a place where the fans have been waiting 1,463 nights for another night they won't ever forget.
assachusetts men's basketball coach James "Bruiser" Flint played for St. Joseph's back in the mid-1980s. If the former player was a casual fan, he would probably be very proud of the success his alma mater is having, and would be rooting for the Hawks to improve their 23-4 (13-1 Atlantic 10) record, as well as their No. 23 national ranking.
Unfortunately for Flint, instead of kicking back and watching St. Joe's attempt to pick up its 10th straight win and 18th victory in its last 19 contests, the fifth year coach will be forced to lead his Minutemen into battle against a team that has clearly established itself as the best in the A-10.
And even though UMass (13-12, 11-3 A-10) has also been playing well of late, winning 11 of its last 14 games to get over .500 for the first time since the opening day of the year, the Maroon and White knows that it will need one of its best games of the season if it is going to have any chance of toppling the conference's most elite group of players.
In the 2000-01 campaign, the Hawks have absolutely ripped apart most of their competition, crushing Duquesne by 20 last Saturday for their latest win. In fact, Xavier has been the only A-10 team to defeat St. Joseph's, squeaking out a win on Jan. 20 in Cincinnati.
At home, St. Joe's has been especially dangerous, and that does not bode well for a Massachusetts squad that will travel down to the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse tonight for a 9:30 p.m. tip off. The Hawks are 11-1 at home and their one loss, a Dec. 11 defeat at the hands of Big Five rival Villanova, didn't even come at the Fieldhouse, but instead at the Palestra, a home away from home for the Philadelphia team.
Marvin O'Connor is probably the most dangerous player on St. Joe's, averaging 21.1 points a game, good enough for second best in the conference. The junior swingman is far from the only offensive weapon the Hawks have, however, as guards Jameer Nelson and Na'im Crenshaw compliment O'Connor by averaging 12.2 and 11.8 PPG, respectively.
Center Bill Phillips is also an offensive threat, averaging 11.9 points to go along with a team-leading 9.4 rebounds a game. Damian Reid supports Phillips on the boards by pulling down 6.8 rebounds of his own.
As far as passing goes, Nelson is the team's floor leader, dishing out a conference-leading 6.3 assists per game. The freshman phenom has been the main difference between this year's team and last year's, picking apart defenses almost at will. Just one example of what he can do took place earlier in the year on Jan. 16 against Temple, when he killed the Owls' matchup zone for 16 points and seven assists in leading his team to a 22-point blowout.
Last season, the Hawks were nothing compared to what they are now, only going 13-16 (7-9 A-10). When the Minutemen played them on Jan. 16 of 2000 in Philly, Monty Mack scored 19 points in order to help UMass to the 73-69 win. Later in the year at the William D. Mullins Center, the results were similar, as UMass picked up a 76-65 victory behind 23 points from Mack and 20 from Shannon Crooks.
However, O'Connor was one player the Maroon and White could not seem to stop, as he totaled a combined 43 points in the two games. Defending him will be a high priority for the Minutemen this time around, and the task will most likely fall to a combination of Winston Smith, Ronell Blizzard and possibly Mack.
Nelson is also capable of giving UMass fits, and Crooks will get the job of trying to defend the fleet-of-foot point guard. Both Crooks and the trio of defenders on O'Connor must try to hold the Hawks below their conference-leading 79.2 points per game; otherwise, it could be a long afternoon for the Minutemen, who are at the very bottom of the A-10 scoring column, with only 67.7 PPG to their credit.
As of now, St. Joseph's has already garnered a share of the regular season A-10 title, but the Maroon and White could still come back and tie for first with a win today, a win against St. Bonaventure on March 3 and an unlikely Hawks loss to LaSalle.