Comparing perfection: 2004 Saint Joseph's vs. 2014 Wichita State

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
C (USATSI)
Jameer Nelson and Phil Martelli went 27-0 before falling in the 2004 A-10 tourney. (USATSI)

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A decade apart but joined by a rare achievement, this year's Wichita State team naturally is compared to the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's club because both ran the regular-season table.

It's a rare feat (before Saint Joe's, the previous undefeated team in the regular season was UNLV in 1990). Saint Joe's and Wichita State are not only a match because they're the two most recent to go unbeaten in the regular season, but because they played outside power conferences. And both will most certainly share the achievement of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Was Phil Martelli's Saint Joe's team better than Gregg Marshall's Shockers? We often hear how bad college basketball is these days. Was the sport more difficult a decade ago, making that run more impressive than the current effort?

"Tougher? I would label it as different," Martelli said. "It had nothing to do with on the court. I think Wichita State's achievement is astounding in this world of texting, tweeting and blogging. This world didn't exist when we [went 27-0]. We opened our doors to the media and held open practices and answered every request we could because who knows when you might walk this path again, if ever. With Wichita State it truly has become 24 hours a day, over-the-top coverage. There are any number of people sitting at a keyboard wanting to send out fact or fiction on any one of those kids. What they've done is very different than what we did."

Even as active as media is in 2014, Wichita State hasn't needed paid protection. Martelli's school did. He said the story and frenzy in Philly got so big in 2004, the school hired a security guard to travel with them.

"We told the team it was for everyone, but really it was for Jameer," Martelli said of Orlando Magic point man Jameer Nelson, who ran the show for Saint Joe's then. It so overwhelmed Nelson, he couldn't even attend class, finishing his spring semester in independent study courses.

With it being so long since the Hawks did this, I asked Martelli to retrace the team's run. What were the benchmarks, the lasting memories? He said they quietly got to about 13-0.

"Philadelphia's a pro football town," he said. "And after the Eagles lost the NFC title game, two days later there must've been 15 or 16 outlets at our practice."

From there it grew with each game.

"When we won at Xavier, Delonte [West] didn't miss a shot," Martelli said, remembering the night Saint Joe's improved to 15-0. "We had Larry Bird and Jerry West courtside. I said to myself, 'This could go on for a long time.'"

Martelli wasn't able to answer the who-is-better question because he said he hasn't been able to watch "one possession" of Marshall's Shockers.

Here's what we know: Saint Joe's had a consensus National Player of the Year in Nelson -- who remains one of my favorite college players -- while Wichita State has Fred VanVleet, who just won MVC Player of the Year, but isn't quite a lock to be a first-team All-American.

Saint Joe's had seven games decided by single digits vs. WSU's six, though the Hawks had many more games decided by more than 30 points.

The "[point] spreads were outrageous," according to Martelli, adding he became a "group manager" more than a coach. As for the pressure to continue winning, Martelli said it "never got to a point where we felt it was unmanageable or unhealthy, but retrospectively it probably did wear us down. Retrospectively, maybe i could have driven that team even harder, but we didn't have a lot of challenging games either."

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Gregg Marshall talks to guard and MVC Player of the Year Fred VanVleet. (USATSI)

Wichita State has taken a similar path, winning most games by double digits and, really, trouncing through the Missouri Valley with little drama. Marshall said his team was only once legitimately threatened -- a 19-point deficit at Missouri State in January, which ended up being a 72-69 overtime win.

"Everybody wants to see the car wreck," Marshall said. "But in that game we did not panic. We won almost every four-minute segment in the second half."

At halftime, there was no tirade over the 42-24 halftime deficit. Marshall said this team doesn't press or fret, so it does not fear losing. They have "played angry," but remained happy, boosted in part by the natural fuel that comes from the odd backlash against this team, which wasn't nearly as intense with Saint Joe's.

"I thought, from afar, that Gregg was just great," Martelli said of Wichita State's Final Four run last season. "I thought he had his A game going, and he's continued that into this season. I really admire how he's handled this."

The two have not talked this season. Martelli said he respects Marshall's ability and is more worried about his own team's NCAA Tournament chances.

Enough of the platitudes. Let's tackle the question. Which squad is better? In that wacky hypothetical universe we visit so frequently, who would you take on a neutral court?

This year's Shockers are allowing 92.5 points per 100 possessions and scoring 116.3, good for ninth and 13th nationally on KenPom.com. Martelli's Hawks from 10 years back were better on D (90.0) and not as good on O (115.0) entering Selection Sunday, ranking seventh in the former and 11th in the latter, nationally. Very similar, indeed.

The A-10, which sent four programs in a 65-team field in 2004, was a lot better than the 2014 Missouri Valley, which will send only one into a 68-team bracket, assuming Wichita State wins the MVC tournament, something it hasn't done in 27 years.

Below, the particulars on each team. The chart is based on Saint Joe's rankings on Selection Sunday 2004. Regarding strength of schedule numbers for SJU, it's as bit tricky to view 10 years removed. Most data takes in account post-NCAA tournament outcomes. This story from the New York Times, which ran before Selection Sunday in 2004, cites the Hawks' SOS as No. 45 and No. 1 overall nonconference SOS.

And in terms of top-40 wins, I'm basing that off KenPom. This Basketball Prospectus page from 2004 tracked the wins in real-time rankings, as opposed to the 2004 page on Pomeroy's site currently.

2004 SAINT JOSEPH'S VS. 2014 WICHITA STATE
TeamRecordSOSNon-con SOSRPISagarinKenPomHighest AP rankRoad/neutral winsTop-50 winsVictory margin
SJU27-0451343118517.6
WSU31-0101346156214315.5

If you think college basketball was better 10 years ago, consider the Hawks produced two players (Nelson, West) who've had successful NBA careers (and forgotten Dwayne Jones, who was signed during a playoff run in the NBA last season), while Wichita State has one player (not VanVleet) in DraftExpress.com's top 100 prospects list -- Cleanthony Early, who is No. 100.

So it seems Martelli's men come out on top. That team failed to reach Selection Sunday without a scar, though Wichita State looks poised to to make it. (To be fair, many believed SJU to be in the same spot 10 years ago, and then Xavier whooped them 87-67 in the A-10 quarters.)

"When you line it up 31 times and you win 31 times, it's an extraordinary feat," Martelli said. "And as an aside, Gregg Marshall moves me off of anybody's [media] Rolodex now. Next time someone does this, they're calling him, not me."

The achievement's already in the books, and for another dose of perspective: Martelli said the undefeated season was the most important thing about that year. The rest was gravy, and only helped cement the team's legacy.

"I think winning 27 games meant more to that team's resume than anything," he said. "I also think being voted No. 1 in the country, both 27-0 and the No. 1 ranking, and then the No. 1 seed, I would say in that order."

The Hawks didn't need a Final Four to validate their season. Wichita State, currently enjoying its highest ranking of the season at No. 2, won't either. Regardless of what happens, it's likely these two teams separated by a decade will be linked going forward.

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