Live from the Atlantic 10 Tournament: Saint Joseph's cuts down the nets and commands respect

Mike Lawrie

The Atlantic 10 might send six teams to the NCAA Tournament and Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli feels the league is deserving.

It's not easy to annoy a college basketball player who just won a conference championship. But Halil Kanacevic, still in his Atlantic 10 championship shirt, was starting to get annoyed with people questioning his conference's legitimacy on the national stage.

"I don't want to hear any of that conference stuff," Kanacevic said. "The A-10 is a tough place to play."

Kanacevic's Saint Joseph's Hawks had just finished off No. 23 VCU, which came into the conference championship game riding a six-game winning streak. He had 11 points and 14 rebounds on Sunday en route to being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Now that the Hawks have secured their NCAA Tournament bid, Kanacevic does not believe his team has anything extra to prove in March, just because they are not from a power conference, despite what others might say.

On Saturday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called out the Atlantic 10 specifically because the league might get six teams in the NCAA Tournament.

"I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they're good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through. "

But Kanacevic was able to counter.

"VCU [beat] Virginia in the beginning of the year," he said. "They're the top ACC team. Every game is different. I don't care what kind of grinder you want to talk about."

That's an attitude that he shares with his coach. Asked about Krzyzewski's comments, Phil Martelli leaned forward.

"I'm not familiar with whom you're referring to. Who's the guy?" he asked.

He may have just not heard the question, but regardless, Martelli followed it up.

"Look, the decisions being made at 6 o'clock tonight are numeric," he said. "Who did you play, how did you do and where do your numbers lay out? It will be a great celebration for the Atlantic 10 tonight with six."

So on the day that the NCAA Tournament field is to be announced, the Atlantic 10 is virtually assured of getting at least five teams in: Saint Joseph's, VCU, UMass, Saint Louis and George Washington. Dayton is on the bubble, but finished the season strong with four straight wins, including victories over the Billikens and Minutemen, before losing to Saint Joseph's in the conference tournament.

It's about more than just getting teams into the dance, however. The conference will have to win games against power conference teams in order to truly earn the respect that it thinks it deserves.

Last year, the league sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament, but only Cinderella La Salle was able to make the Sweet 16. The Explorers won three games as a 13 seed, including a play-in game, before falling to fellow mid-major Wichita State.

The six teams that the Atlantic 10 might get into the tournament are all ranked 53rd or higher in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, with VCU ranked highest at 12th.

Not that numbers or the media have much say in what happens in March.

"We don't care what people think of us. We never have, we never will," Kanacevic said. "Wherever we go, we have to play hard and prepare."

That's what it ultimately comes down to for Saint Joseph's. The Hawks stormed through the Atlantic 10 Tournament, beating Dayton and St. Bonaventure before taking care of the Rams on Sunday. They have now won 24 games and have beaten VCU twice.

Saint Joseph's has an auto bid to the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn't guarantee anything. The A-10 is tough, but March Madness is a whole ‘nother grinder.

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