That would be my name for the Atlantic 10 this year. St. Joe’s has a legitimate shot to enter the NCAA tourney unbeaten, partially because they are very good and partially because the rest of their conference is down this year. I wouldn’t bet on the Hawks pulling it off, but their chances are much better than the other 2 unbeatens, Stanford and Cincinnati. Now that they have risen to #3 in both polls, if they do run the table they will certainly be #1 at the end of the year. However, even if they are unbeaten they might not be a #1 seed in the tourney. The committee has set the precedent with Gonzaga year after year with regards to seeding based on whom you’ve beaten. Right now SJU has 1 win against a definite tourney team (Gonzaga) and 1 win against a probable team (Boston College). The A10 isn’t doing them any favors. No other team has emerged as a definite dancer. Dayton will be in line for a bid if they don’t do anything stupid, but the conference may only get 2 teams in. And that means if SJU does go unbeaten, they will only have 4 wins over tourney teams. Maybe 5 if Villanova gets going. Then what if they lose one or two games from here on out? Hawks fans, prepare to be disappointed with your seeding.
Now onto another question: What can we expect from the Hawks in the postseason? Last year they flamed out against Auburn. The Hawks were only a 7 seed but the 1st round loss was surprising to most, as Auburn hadn’t done much to impress up to that point. SJU has essentially the same personnel as last year. Players that didn’t return only produced 10% of SJU’s minutes in 02-03. They have the same guys back with another year under their belt and appear to be improved, but are they a Final Four team?
Their guard tandem of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West is far and away the best in the nation. Throw in the unheralded Tyrone Barley who occasionally joins the duo off the bench for a 3-guard set and this is easily the most guard-dominated team in the top 10. Those 3 guys have accounted for 46.5% of the team’s minutes this year. Last year they played 42.2% of the minutes, although West missed 4 games so if you account for that it comes out a little closer. But there’s still a slight edge to more “guard minutes” this year. How reliant upon the guards is this team? Nelson and West are the 2nd and 3rd leading rebounders on this team, respectively.
Each member of the guard trio has improved this year. All three have improved their shooting percentage from last year, with both Nelson and West amazingly around 50%. Nelson’s turnovers are down, and his assists are slightly down also, but who cares? He’s the best option on the team and he can’t pass it to himself. All three guards are shooting the 3 better than year and Nelson and West are better from the free throw line. As you would expect, the same is true for the Hawks as a team. Every aspect of the Hawks offense has improved this year.
02-03 03-04 FG% 44.3 47.3 3FG% 36.3 38.9 FT% 68.6 70.2 OE 111 116 TO% 23.6 21.4
Defensively, their numbers are virtually identical to last year.
02-03 03-04 Opp FG% 44.3 47.3 Opp 3FG% 33.2 30.7 DE 91 92 TO% 26.8 26.6
The one aspect that has deteriorated for SJU is rebounding, and this is the factor that will likely prevent them from going deep in the tourney.
02-03 03-04 OR% 33.9 28.1 DR% 64.0 64.7
They are giving up nearly the same amount of second shots to their opponents, and they have had a decrease in getting their own offensive boards. As long as Nelson and West continue to shoot like they are 6′-9″ (West was 12-12 against Xavier last Saturday), there isn’t much need for second shots. But as the Hawks encounter better defensive teams in the tournament, their shooting percentage will naturally go down, and its unlikely their rebounding percentage will go up. They were outrebounded badly against Gonzaga, but didn’t do that bad against BC. They held their own against two other quality opponents, Cal and Xavier, although both of those teams have been outrebounded for the season themselves. I have to think it’s pretty rare for a team to get outrebounded on the year and then get to the Final Four. If the Hawks do get there, it would be on the shoulders of the backcourt. They would have to be considered one of the best guard combos of all-time if their continued hot shooting allows SJU to play in April.