Saint Joe's, Gonzaga Offer Hope for Little Guys
March 9, 2004
By STEVE WILSTEIN
NEW YORK - Two small Jesuit schools on opposite sides of the country are winning votes and hearts.
No. 1 Saint Joseph's has the flashy backcourt, No. 3 Gonzaga the NBA-sized front line.
It's one of the more incredible stories in college basketball history, these two little schools from Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash., stealing the limelight and the season from the giants with big recruiting budgets and big campuses.
"It's a dream come true," Saint Joe's senior guard Jameer Nelson said about the school's first top ranking. "At the same time, we have to take care of business these last few games."
But in this month of madness, does Saint Joe's or Gonzaga have what it takes to win the NCAA tournament?
The guess here is no on Saint Joe's and maybe on Gonzaga.
Saint Joe's absolutely deserves the No. 1 ranking after sweeping through the regular season with the only perfect record in Division I, 27-0, including a victory against Gonzaga in the opener.
Yet that record, built largely on a weak schedule, will look like a whopping target to opponents trying to shoot them down, starting at the Atlantic 10 tournament this week and right on through to the Final Four.
The Hawks have the nation's best backcourt with Nelson and Delonte West, plus 3-point threat Pat Carroll at forward. Make it a three-on-three tournament and nobody beats them.
But they could take a beating under the boards against a strong front court, especially if they face a player like Connecticut's Emeka Okafor or Missouri's Arthur Johnson.
Saint Joe's makes up for its lack of size and depth inside by hurting teams from the outside on offense, pressuring them from the backcourt, and stripping them of the ball down low. It's been a winning combination so far, but teams that live by the 3-point shot also have a way of dying by it come tournament time.
"Teams that get to the Final Four are the ones with things that work with consistency - the inside presence with a front line, outside presence with guards," ESPN analyst and former coach Digger Phelps said.
Syracuse and Kansas had it last year, Maryland in 2002, Duke the year before that. Michigan State, Connecticut, Kentucky, Arizona, all the recent champions, won with that formula.
"Teams that are physical get offensive rebounds and score on them," Phelps said. "Saint Joe's is not doing that. They haven't been doing that all year."
Gonzaga (27-2) has been doing it, with Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette muscling their way around the boards. Turiaf, as good a big man as there is in the country, leads the Bulldogs with 15 points and six rebounds a game. Violette is averaging nearly 14 points and eight rebounds.
The Bulldogs have outside balance with guard Blake Stepp, the West Coast Conference player of the year for the second time, averaging nearly 15 points and seven assists. They also have greater depth than most teams through their top 10 players.
"They're going to beat teams up and wear them down," Phelps said.
These Bulldogs live up to their names with tenacious defense. They have beaten tougher opponents than Saint Joe's has, including Missouri when it was ranked No. 3, Maryland when it was No. 25 and Washington, which knocked off No. 1 Stanford last weekend.
"The Zags got the reputation for being a Cinderella team back when they really were one," Phelps said. "Well, they're no longer the Cinderella. They and Saint Joe's are the targets to beat, and every game they go out now it's going to be a Super Bowl for them."
No one is invulnerable, and no one can be written off in the NCAA tournament. That's truer this year than most others, with the No. 1 ranking passing through so many hands during the season.
Duke (25-4) skidded recently but has a higher Rating Percentage Index than Saint Joe's. That's because Duke's schedule strength is ranked No. 7, while Saint Joe's is 44th. Kentucky is third in RPI, followed by Mississippi State, Pittsburgh and Stanford.
A month ago, everyone was looking past defending national champion Syracuse. Now after five straight victories - the latest against UConn when it was No. 7, a week after beating then-No. 3 Pitt on the road - the Orangemen merit serious consideration to make a run deep into the tournament, if not the Final Four again.
"This team finished the season as well as you could expect," coach Jim Boeheim said. "These guys took it upon themselves to dig down and play a little bit harder."
Gonzaga almost certainly will play its first two games across Washington state in Seattle, then might get a shot at some payback against Stanford in Phoenix.
Gonzaga's only losses this year came against Saint Joe's, when Turiaf was hurt, and against Stanford in December.
"I always believe in payback games," Phelps said.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org
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