Saint Joseph's leaves lean seasons behind, picked to win Atlantic 10 behind a veteran roster

Wanting to have some fun on Twitter, Saint Joseph's guard Carl Jones decided to send a message to Jameer Nelson, only the greatest player to wear a uniform on Hawk Hill.

"I'm coming for that scoring record big homie," (at)tayj35 sent to (at)JameerNelson in September.

Nelson, an Orlando Magic guard, urged Jones to "go get it youngfella!!" Nelson wasn't finished, either. He ended the tweet by reminding Jones that players are judged at Saint Joseph's by more than the individual records they leave behind. They have to win, just like Nelson did when he was the AP College Basketball Player of the Year and led the Hawks to a regional final in 2004.

"Records are made to be broken," Nelson wrote. "But you gotta win while u break them."

Jones and the rest of the Hawks are poised to do plenty of winning this season. There's a buzz building on Hawk Hill over an experienced and talented team that was the preseason favorite to win a revamped Atlantic 10 and appears set to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

The consecutive 11-win seasons were left behind when Jones, Langston Galloway and C.J Aiken keyed the Hawks' leap from 22 losses in 2010-11 to a 20-14 mark and an NIT berth last season. Under coach Phil Martelli, the Hawks were one of nine teams to win 20 games a year after losing 20.

Martelli, entering his 18th season with 320 career wins, has his best team since Nelson and Delonte West led the Hawks to a 30-2 mark in 2003-04.

Saint Joseph's returns all five starters, most notably Aiken, the 6-foot-9 forward who was named the conference's defensive player of the year and was fifth in the nation in blocked shots (3.53). Galloway led the A-10 in 3-point shooting (47 percent) and Jones, the only senior in the starting lineup, led the Hawks in scoring each of the last two seasons. Throw in returning A-10 sixth man of the year, Ronald Roberts Jr., and it's easy to see why the Hawks were picked to win the conference for the first time since 2004-05 — and a year after they were picked seventh (and finished fifth).

"I don't run from it when we're 12th," Martelli said. "And I don't run to it when we're picked first."

Martelli never hid from the critics, even as the losses piled up, and another March would go by with the Hawks sitting at home. Temple and Villanova surged ahead as the city's basketball powers, winning conference titles, making regular NCAA trips, and scarfing up some of Philly's top recruits (Lavoy Allen, Maalik Wayns) all while the Hawks posted modest-to-lousy regular seasons as that 2004 burst became a distant memory.

Yes, 2004 was a triumph (27 straight wins, reached No. 1 in the AP poll, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament) but it set a benchmark for success few programs could ever expect to match. The season still hangs over the program, with Martelli even asked at a recent media day how this seasons' team compares to Nelson, West and crew. Martelli never hesitated, offering a simple, "It's not comparable."

Martelli, though, never wavered in his approach to finding another exciting core of team-first players, even as the call for a fresh voice on the bench grew bolder on anonymous message boards or from disgruntled boosters.

"I understand their passion and I understand their disappointment," Martelli said. "But in a moment of clarity, step back and think if they're any more disappointed or any more upset than the coaches. That's my livelihood. I don't ever want these players to ever leave and say, 'That wasn't worth it.'"

The only letdown last season was the fact the Hawks feel like they let an NCAA bid slip away with some bad losses down the stretch. Martelli also pointed out the Hawks led at some point in the second half of 11 of their 14 losses, leads a more veteran team might not let get away.

"We spent a lot of the postseason walking around with our heads down, mumbling," Martelli said. "I wanted them to be disappointed that we didn't get more, that we were unfulfilled, but I also wanted them to hold their chest out, stick their head high in the air, look at our history and tell me how many times we won 20 games."

Saint Joseph's received 11 first-place votes and 434 points from the panel of A-10 coaches and media. Saint Louis, Temple, Massachusetts; and VCU and Butler — new additions to the A-10 and recent Final Four teams — are all in the mix for the top spot. Six teams earned first-place votes.

"I haven't had to bring them down off a mountain or from the clouds," Martelli said.

But he could lead them deep into March.