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Long-awaited second A-10 tourney title still looms over Phil Martelli

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

More: Updated bracket projection | Bubble Watch | Live Blog Updates

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Earning rings, cutting nets and breaking streaks. That's what Sunday will be about for Saint Joseph's.

Oh, and then they'll eventually get around to watching the Selection Show to see where the committee has decided to slate them.

Because since SJU is easily in the field now, winning a league championship is what means most to this group, its fans and the man that's been running the program for 18 years, Phil Martelli. It's been a long time since Martelli's been able to enter the NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid attached to his team. Only once, in fact, back in 1997, his second year on Hawk Hill.

That could be surprising to some, but not the fans who've long wanted and waited for another A-10 banner to go hang in Hagan Arena.

Saint Joseph's has made three trips to the A-10 finals since 1997 -- infamously missing earning a banner i that memorable 2003-04 campaign, when the Hawks went 27-0 in the regular season but lost in the league quarterfinals to Xavier -- but this could be the program's best chance to win the conference bracket in 10 years.

Martelli's men cruised past St. Bonaventure 67-48 in Saturday's anticlimactic undercard semifinal at the Barclays Center. The 23-9 Hawks got a tremendous performance out of Halil Kanacevic, the frank-talking senior power forward out of Staten Island who doesn't give a damn about scoring. He's a matter-of-fact player who was born to Serbian parents and seems to cherish the little things.

After finishing his press conference at the dais on Friday, Kanacevic curiously turned to the Atlantic 10's media coordinator and asked, "I can have this water? That's awesome."

A bottle of Poland Spring brings Halil Kanacevic joy.

"I'm fascinated by him as a person," Martelli said. "On a team full of great teammates, he's the best teammate."

Martelli cited Kanacevic's 27-point, 12-rebound performance in a 20-point Dec. 18 win over Drexel as the "game that saved the season," as SJU was 4-4 at the time and trailed 27-23 at the half against their intra-Philly foe.

The Hawks have gone 19-5 since then, and on Saturday Kanacevic put up a personal classic, scoring 26 points in addition to 17 boards, four assists and two steals. It was a great game for him. I mean, I guess. Kanacevic said you can decide for yourself, 'cause he doesn't much give a damn about anything but the win.

C (USATSI)
Phil Martelli has coached SJU to a 23-9 record and probably a No. 9 seed or better. (USATSI)

"Numbers-wise, yeah, but I never really base my game on numbers," Kanacevic said. "I don't care about points, I definitely gotta rebounds, and it's not how many rebounds I get it -- it's how many offensive rebounds the other team gets. ... But scoring, yeah, I had a good game, but whatever, I really don't care about it."

Because Saint Joe's doesn't have a non-conference win that stands out -- winning at Vermont is the biggest one -- there's a little unknown to this team. Are they underrated? Under-appreciated?

"We don't care about any of that stuff," Kanacevic said. "It's just been about us the whole year. Do you think we're underrated? No offense, but we don't pay attention to that stuff. ... You rank us number one or 100th, I don't think anyone in that locker room cares."

On the way to the Barclays Center Saturday morning, the team bus passed by a Brooklyn park around 11:30. Temperatures were climing into the mid-50s, and plenty of bodies were occupying playgrounds all around the five boroughs. At this particular one Martelli saw a healthy battle of pickup hoops. He said it made him think about the basis of that kind of competition: You don't let fatigue factor in, if you can help it. You play to stay on the court, to win until it gets dark out.

"Championships are forever," Martelli said.

And he knows, because it's felt like almost as long since he got one, his only one. He badly wants another. The Atlantic 10's season is nearing conclusion, and the Hawks have next. Time for just one more game before nightfall.

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