Hoop Dreams

It’s college basketball time!

St. Joe’s senior Isaiah Miles

Although the Eagles-less Super Bowl looms Sunday, this past weekend afforded a glimpse of the next six months of sporting agony—it was the first since August without any football. Don’t try to give El Hombre the Pro Bowl. That’s about as close to a real version of the sport as Johnny Manziel is to the priesthood.

We’ll absorb the spectacle of the Super game and then wander through a half-year of gridiron depravation, yearning for pigskin the way a man forced to watch a Real Housewives marathon searches for an end to life itself.

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Of course, there are distractions. One of them is college basketball, which is beginning its roll toward the NCAA tournament. This is when things start to get interesting on campus, since the charlatans have been shunted to the side, destined to serve as resume builders for the big boys, and the ever-changing tourney “bubble” offers considerable intrigue practically every day.

The good news is that Villanova and Saint Joseph’s appear well positioned for inclusion, and in the case of the Wildcats, an extremely high seed. The 18-3 Hawks have been a revelation this season, thanks to the dynamic duo of DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles, and strong contributions from younger players like point man Shavar Newkirk. Give coach Phil Martelli big credit, too. Every time it seems like he is on the verge of sending the Hawk community into full-on revolt, he fashions a season like this one, which includes wins in 14 of SJU’s last 15 games.

Although the Hawks didn’t exactly play attractive basketball Saturday in their win at Rhode Island—four assists, 13 turnovers as a team— the triumph pushed SJU to 7-0 on the road this season, making it one of just four teams in the country who’ve remained unblemished as visitors this season.

As of now, Saint Joe’s is still not comfortably in the NCAA field. In fact, Joe Lunardi, an SJU alum and the school’s director of external relations, had it as one of the first four teams out of the tournament as of last Monday’s Bracketology forecast. But with 10 conference games left in an Atlantic 10 that’s strong at the top and gooey below, it’s hard to imagine the Hawks entering the conference tournament with fewer than 25 victories.

About seven miles west of Hawk Hill, things are even brighter. Sunday’s win over St. John’s pushed the Wildcats to 18-3, kept them solidly in the Top 10 and allowed them to remain in the discussion for a No. 1 seed come March. Like SJU’s weekend triumph, Nova’s win over the Johnnies lacked esoteric beauty, but it was a road victory and therefore quite welcome.

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It would be nice if Nova had a tough road non-conference game this month, since the Big East isn’t quite so imposing this year—no matter how much the pollsters think of it. Being forced to prepare for an unfamiliar opponent in the middle of conference play would serve players and coaches well, because the staff would have to put together a gameplan without much notice, and the players would be exposed to an alien style of play in a hostile environment. El Hombre is certain that, if Oklahoma has a successful March run, coach Lon Kruger will mention Saturday’s win in front of a berserk LSU crowd as something that helped his Sooners considerably.

Since that isn’t happening, the Wildcats will fall back on the experience of vets Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart—along with a burgeoning bench presence—to key what it hopes will be a legitimate Final Four challenge. It’s certainly possible, and it’s one of the things to watch as we begin our football detox and await next season’s arrival.

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Among the many good things coming out of Chip Kelly’s exit from Eagleland is the end to any talk that the team might consider signing Johnny Trainwreck. His latest imbroglio (an alleged physical altercation with his girlfriend) demonstrates that the guy should be as welcome in the Eagles’ locker room as a rodent infestation. Hats off to the Episcopal Academy basketball pep band, which is comprised of fourth and fifth graders with some serious talent. With fewer than two weeks until the start of PIAA post-season hoop play, the jockeying for seeding is going on in earnest. Games begin Feb. 12.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!