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O'Connor fits in at St. Joseph's
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 1/5/2002

Phil Martelli makes two offers to his Saint Joseph's seniors each season.

The first is to help, however possible, when they apply for their first jobs, inside or outside basketball. The second is a release from all responsibility for the recruits who visit Saint Joseph's campus that year.

``They're not going to play with these kids, so there's no reason,'' Martelli said yesterday. ``But in the middle of the meeting Marvin got up and said, no disrespect, but he wanted to stay involved in the recruiting end. He didn't want this program to slip after he left.''

Marvin O'Connor, the senior guard who emerged last season as one of the most exciting scorers in the country, will play his last game in the Mullins Center this afternoon in the Atlantic 10 Conference opener for both UMass (6-4) and the Hawks (6-4).

Stories now abound concerning O'Connor's growing pains, from his abrupt transfer from Villanova as a dissatisfied freshman, to his emotionally explosive first season at Saint Joseph's, to the leader who now spends whatever time it takes trying to win over those recruits.

``The bottom line is that recruiting is everything, and the fact that I'm a high-profile guy means that I can stick my nose into it, give them a talk about my background, and be a help,'' said O'Connor, who is now grateful for his decision to trade the Big East spotlight for a warmer, more communal life on Hawk Hill.

``It's like he'll tell the recruits - `I wanted the Big East, and the TV exposure and the big games,' '' said Martelli. ``It was a matter of thinking that big was better. But he came to learn that it's about relationships. He's been involved in every player's panel that we do.''

It certainly wasn't a question of talent that led O'Connor on his search for a different environment. UMass coach Steve Lappas, then at Villanova, had successfully recruited the 6-foot-4 O'Connor out of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School, but discovered that O'Connor wasn't comfortable in Villanova's setting. O'Connor says that a lack of playing time led to his transfer. But it became clear, before long, that the emotional freshman was unhappy.

``He played about 20 minutes a game as a freshman, but I just don't think he was really comfortable with Villanova,'' said Lappas. ``He would go home every night, whether it was after practice or after games. He was just not as comfortable as he would have liked to be.''

Said O'Connor: ``It was just an up-and-down year. I just wasn't happy with the situation. Coming out of high school all the kids look at the bigger programs and think that's where they want to be. I was just fortunate to get a second chance.

``In every aspect of my life I've matured since then,'' he said. ``Now that I've been through five years of college, it's much different.''

The result is the player who, with just less than 40 seconds left in a game against Gonzaga last week, grabbed a tipped rebound at the top of the 3-point circle with the score tied, 80-80.

Though the Hawks had 35 seconds on the shot clock, and Martelli wanted to work it down for a late shot, O'Connor had long-since earned the green light he took, and missed.

But such is the confidence of a shooter. Though Gonzaga's Dan Dickau came back and made the Hawks pay dearly with a game-winning trey with three seconds left on the clock, O'Connor's game is now beyond reproach.

``I would have preferred to get the last shot, but Marvin didn't take it out of selfishness,'' said Martelli. ``It was in the flow of the game.''

Though O'Connor's clock-defying style may sometimes push the issue, there's little doubt about his intent now. Nothing less would be acceptable for someone who believes so passionately in Saint Joseph's.

``Probably it's the family atmosphere that exists there,'' said O'Connor, averaging 18.4 points per game this season. ``People really don't know how much we care about each other, and respect each other, on this team. We have a very special bond. You have guys who understand you, and what you do, no matter what.''

Expectations high for Hawks
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 1/5/2002

AMHERST - In most years a 6-4 start at Saint Joseph's would be considered pretty good. In the last six years the Hawks had better records than that only twice.

But at 6-4 this year after 10 games, Hawk fans are antsy. In most years a trip to the NCAA Tournament is a bonus.

But this year looked different. The team's top five scorers all returned from last year's NCAA Tournament team that went 26-7 and was ranked No. 10 in both preseason polls.

An NCAA bid was supposed to be a given. Some experts even picked the Hawks to be a Final Four-caliber team.

But the Hawks have never quite gotten on the roll that was expected of them. A shocking loss to Eastern Washington to open the season was followed by six straight wins, but those victories came against a less-than-impressive slate.

The Hawks arrive in Amherst on a three-game losing streak. St. Joe's lost twice in the tournament of champions in Charlotte, the same event that UMass was swept in last year to drop to 2-9 before going 13-6 the rest of the way. The Hawks lost first to Georgia State and then to North Carolina with Marvin O'Connor sitting out with a jammed toe.

On Monday, Gonzaga's Dan Dickau made a shot with 3.6 seconds left to give the Zags an 83-80 win over St. Joe's at Hawk Hill.

Coach Phil Martelli said he wasn't judging his team against outside expectations during the preseason when optimism was high, and he isn't doing it now either.

"We're just going to get better," Martelli said. "I'd feel that way if we were 10-0, 6-4 or 0-10."

Martelli has coached against Steve Lappas, when the UMass coach was at Villanova, and against the Minutemen, but the combination presents a different look.

"It's an unusual situation," Martelli said. "We're familiar with the names, but the style has changed. But our guys know their guys are good players. We don't have to convince them that Shannon Crooks or Micah Brand is a good player. They know. Plus they're doing what they always do on defense. They're just not allowing people to score."

Lappas wasn't excited about the prospect of seeing Saint Joseph's coming in on a losing streak.

"I'd rather see anyone after three straight wins, especially a good team," Lappas said. "They're very good. They have one of the best backcourts in the country. It's a tough matchup."

Lappas, who coached O'Connor for one season at Villanova before O'Connor transferred to St. Joe's, said there isn't any significance in the reunion.

"We played him last year," Lappas said. "We're just playing St. Joe's."

Before this season started O'Connor said he didn't harbor any resentment toward his former coach.

"I don't have any animosity. I realized that it wasn't for me," O'Connor said. "When I took a step back and looked at why I chose a school it was for a lot of the wrong reasons. But it worked out here."

Despite his toe injury, O'Connor returned to action against Gonzaga. He was off his game as he hit just 2-of-13 shots while scoring eight points.

He and big man Bill Phillips (shoulder) both sat out some practice time this week to try to get healthy. Martelli expects both to play Saturday but isn't sure how close to full strength either would be.

The game figures to be an interesting matchup in the backcourt. O'Connor hasn't been the same player he was last year. After averaging 22.1 points, while gathering considerable support for the league's player of the year trophy (which eventually went to David West), O'Connor is still dangerous at 18.4 points, but his shooting percentage is down.

He'll match up against Minuteman senior Shannon Crooks, who has played well since switching to shooting guard. Crooks said he was looking forward to facing O'Connor again.

"He's a real good player," Crooks said. "I look forward to playing against guys like him to match my skills against. It's definitely a matchup I look forward to."

At point guard, Saint Joe's sophomore Jameer Nelson helped turn the Hawks' fortunes around as a freshman a year ago. He continues to be a steady presence, matching last year's average with 6.5 assists per game, while his turnovers are down.

In his first season, Minuteman sophomore Anthony Anderson has drawn regular comparisons to Nelson.

"I think there is a lot of similarities between them," Lappas said.

"He was national freshman of the year," Anderson said. "I know it's going to be a big task. I don't pay a lot of attention to what people say. I like to see for myself, but if people compare me to him, that's good stuff."

Two guards have much in common
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 1/5/2002

AMHERST - As Marvin O'Connor stands with the ball on the perimeter, Shannon Crooks will stare at the Hawk guard's sternum, waiting for him to make his move.

O'Connor's lips will probably be moving, delivering a stream of trash talk audible only to himself and Crooks.

The Minuteman guard may return the verbal volley. He may not.

The scene will be reversed at the other end, with Crooks deciding: Drive? Shoot? Pass? and O'Connor's tough glare fixed on him, waiting to react.

For the better part of 40 minutes Saturday, when Crooks and the University of Massachusetts play O'Connor and Saint Joseph's, the two likely will defend one another, close enough for Crooks to count O'Connor's corn rows, near enough for O'Connor to smell the cinnamon from the Big Red smacking between Crooks' teeth.

They'll bump, they'll push, they'll trash talk. They'll probably send each other to the free-throw line more than once.

That's the nature of Crooks' and O'Connor's relationship. The Minuteman from Boston who played at nearby Everett High and the Hawk from Philadelphia's Passyunk Homes projects have performed this bruising dance before.

But that's the extent of their knowledge of one another.

They've never had a conversation. They have no idea they have so much in common.

Crooks might know whether O'Connor prefers driving left or right, but he probably doesn't know that O'Connor's father died of cancer just before the former Simon Gratz star left for Villanova.

O'Connor could tell you that Crooks likes to dribble between his legs in traffic, but he is likely unaware that Crooks' father Sam died of cancer during his son's freshman year at St. John's or that Crooks' daughter Samantha, who was born a week ago, is named after him.

Both players transferred from the Big East to the Atlantic 10 after confidence-shaking freshman years during the 1997-98 season: O'Connor across Philly to St. Joe's, and Crooks to UMass.

The two players share an intense competitive nature. They want the ball at critical times and sometimes need to overcome similar temptations to try to do too much when their team needs a big play. Both are their teams' leading scorers, and are respected as defenders and leaders.

They don't know each other, but in a lot of ways they do, because they know themselves. Chances are Crooks and O'Connor have dealt with similar emotions as they've overcome comparable obstacles en route to Saturday's meeting.

UMass coach Steve Lappas, who coached O'Connor at Villanova and is coaching Crooks now, noticed the similarities.

"They're both aggressive guys on both ends of the floor," Lappas said. "They're attack-minded. They're both tough guys."

On the night before the Atlantic 10 Tournament begins in March, the conference holds an awards banquet, where anyone who is receiving an individual award or has been named to an all-conference team accepts his honor. If the non-conference season is an accurate indicator, both Crooks and O'Connor will make some all-league team and be there.

Maybe they'll get a chance to talk.

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