Tuesday, March 02, 2004

26 Down, 1 to Go | In three hours my Saint Joseph's Hawks will tip it off against a very bad St. Bonaventure team, and if all goes according to form, the Hawks will emerge as the first team in 13 years to complete an undefeated regular season.

Hot on the Hawks' heels (or wings) is Stanford, enjoying a similarly flawless year. The two teams go 1-2 in the national polls, but more than a few of pundits see Saint Joseph's as the clearly inferior team. San Jose Mercury News columnist Skip Bayless filed a petty, nasty piece yesterday that simultaneously victimized the Cardinal and slammed the Hawks:

Undefeated St. Joe's doesn't belong in the same sentence, paragraph or four-volume anthology with undefeated Stanford. Underappreciated Stanford is a textbook Final Four team peaking just as February turns to March Madness. St. Joe's is an overrated East Coast media sensation -- or creation -- that will go quickly from March Fadness to Sadness.

There's a lot more where that came from, but it doesn't bear repeating. Leaping to Saint Joseph's defense today was Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon, in a piece that ran on the paper's front page, above the fold:

The month of the fine madness is upon us again, not a moment too soon, and as a prelude to tournament frenzy, the Hawks are about to finish a regular season that contains not a single wart, smudge, stumble, blemish or blot.


Quite a winter's work.

Yet there are those, the professional grumps and sour scoffers, specialists in finding lint, who sneer at that achievement, deriding the caliber of competition against which it was compiled. Whom, they demand, have the Hawks beaten?

The answer is, everyone who has been put in front of them.

More, you cannot do.

Lyon, as is his style, takes the high road. The guy who really nails it today is the Daily News's Rich Hofmann, in a piece that rightly takes Bayless to task for being the latest on "the list of people who don't get it." Citing the Bayless paragraph from above, Hofmann writes:

This is an interesting paragraph. It is hard to decide just what is most impressive about it: the intellectual gymnastics it took to conclude that the No. 1 team in the nation is somehow underappreciated, or the ability to type so flawlessly with Cardinal red pompoms stuck firmly in both hands.

That isn't the point, though. That isn't why Bayless doesn't get it. The fact is that he might be right, and Digger Phelps might be right, and Billy Packer might be right, and all of the people who knocked the Saint Joseph's Hawks might be right. There are no guarantees in the NCAA Tournament. They will play the games and we will all find out, once and for all.

It isn't the prediction of doom that is wrong, but the gleeful necessity they all feel in making it. Why is there this imperative to see the future and ignore the present? It is an affliction shared, frankly, both by the Hawks' detractors and by the St. Joe's supporters who have been talking about March since November. There are too many people who have been so fixated on the future that they have seemed unwilling to experience what is.

That is really the sad part, the sign that they don't get it, because this isn't likely to happen again, not in our lifetimes. Yet something so special, something that should be savored, instead has been turned into a source of contention by too many people.

Why is there this need to slight the Hawks' success? Who are they harming? Who are they threatening? This isn't going to happen again in 2005 or 2015, and probably not in 2055, either -- not 26-0, not No. 2 in the nation, none of it.

The Hawks are not bucking for lifetime membership in the Top 5 club, which wouldn't even exist, by the way, if not for the revenues generated by big-time college football. Saint Joseph's is just visiting, and everybody knows it. The Hawks have elevated their program to a new level in the last half-dozen years under coach Phil Martelli, but fun is fun. We all understand that this season isn't happening again.

I've been blessed to watch these Hawks with my own eyes several times this season, and I'll be equally fortunate to be with the team during the Atlantic 10 and NCAA tournaments. Take away the sheer ballet of this team's selfless passing game, the ferocity of its defense, the cold-blooded accuracy of its outside shooters, its immense heart and basketball IQ, and you're still left with what should soon be 27 wins and no losses, at a school where ballplayers go to real classes, the coach does his weekly TV show in the student center, and the gym resembles nothing so much as the home court in Hoosiers.

It really doesn't matter if Saint Joseph's isn't as good as Stanford. The Hawks are simply more fun to follow.


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