Saint Joseph's flying high as Atlantic 10 contenders

Feb 19, 2016 - 5:48 PM PHILADELPHIA (AP) Perhaps it was Pope Francis' visit to Saint Joseph's in the fall that turned the Hawks into birds of prey.

Maybe it's the `fro.

Whatever the juju, the high-flying, wing-flapping good times are back on Hawk Hill.

Next stop, March Madness?

''Other people can do that if they want,'' coach Phil Martelli said. ''I only have 24 hours worth of energy and I give every ounce of my energy to make sure this team is prepared to play now on Saturday.''

The Hawks are on a hot streak not seen around campus since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the program all the way to No. 1 and the Elite Eight in 2003-04. SJU's 79-70 win over No. 15 Dayton 79-70 on Wednesday gave it 11 wins in 12 games and a tie for first in the Atlantic 10.

''We feel like it's, `when' we get to the tournament,'' forward DeAndre' Bembry said.

Bembry, the junior with the throwback afro and the NBA-ready game, has led Saint Joseph's charge. He had 16 points and 13 rebounds against Dayton and helped bolster Saint Joseph's bid (22-4, 11-2) for an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Bembry, yet to decide if he'll return for a senior season, has some offensive help this season. Unlike a year ago, when he outscored the second-leading scorer on a 13-win team by 7 points, Bembry has formed a potent 1-2 punch with forward Isaiah Miles.

''DeAndre' doesn't have to think, or in reality, do it, alone,'' Martelli said. ''Last year, that wasn't the case. Now he can do what he does best, facilitate.''

Martelli, who has 397 career wins on Hawk Hill, found Bembry on a recruiting trip for eventual Maryland forward Jared Nickens. Martelli returned to his staff and told him he found a prospect that caught his eye more than Nickens. Martelli pressed on, returned the next summer for AAU games and confirmed his gut feeling: ''He's the guy.''

''His IQ was ridiculously high,'' Martelli said. ''The ease with which he played, nothing was too much. Tremendous defender. At least from afar, you'd say, that kid is about winning. He's not about the flash.''

But, the balding Martelli concedes with a smile, ''the hair jumps out at you.''

Bembry's `fro is sprouting into Questlove proportions.

The afro has been trimmed but not seriously cut since the start of his junior year of high school. When a trim earlier this season sheared about an inch more than expected, Saint Joseph's student newspaper slapped the headline ''Barbershop of Horrors'' on the hair-raising breaking news.

''It's going to get higher,'' Bembry said.

So is Saint Joseph's spot in the national rankings.

The Hawks, 9-0 on the road, earned 57 points in this week's poll, third most among teams that fell short of the top 25. Should the Hawks win at Davidson (15-9, 7-6) Saturday, they have a good shot of making the Top 25 for the first time since they finished the `04 season fifth.

There were 27 straight wins to open the season, the first No. 1 ranking and first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in team history, a 30-win season, a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981, and the first All-America nod (Nelson) in team history.

But even with banners and collages of that season plastered around the arena, it's so long ago that today's players were in kindergarten or grade school when Hawk Hill morphed into THE place to be in college basketball.

The Hawks made the tourney only two more times, the last in 2014 when they won the A-10 tournament.

Martelli was the star of that March run - Philip Martelli. He was just 4 when he made more headlines than the Hawks with his pitch-perfect impersonation of his grandfather. He wore a blazer and oversized tie to games, pumped his fist at the student section walking in, just like Phil, sat behind the bench, folded his arms and shouted ''Hey!'' in perfect synch.

Now 6, Philip wore SJU gear Wednesday night and sat with granddad for the postgame press conference.

So maybe it's the kid who's the true rabbit's foot for the Hawks.

Ah, probably not.

It's Bembry and Miles each averaging about 17 points and 8 boards a game. It's Shavar Newkirk and ''Fresh'' Kimble thriving in a point guard platoon. It's Aaron Brown and James Demery buying into team ball.

It's a team that should join No. 1 Villanova in the tourney and infuse March with Philly flavor.

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