College basketball returned on Tuesday night, and as has been the case for more than three decades, Phil Martelli was a part of it. The striking difference was that for the first time since the Reagan administration, Martelli didn’t open the season on the sidelines at Saint Joseph’s, but rather as the grizzled, experience right hand man for first-time head coach Juwan Howard at Michigan.
The story about what led to that has been well told. The Hawks let Martelli go in late March following a 14-19 season that ended with a loss to Davidson in the A-10 Tournament. With a three paragraph release, St. Joe’s moved on from a coach who had spent 34 years at the program, and 24 as its head coach. As reported by the Athletic’s Dana O’Neil, the move seemed to have “blindsided” Martelli.
“Coaching St. Joe’s basketball was a way of life for my family and me. As I move away, I’m starting to realize it was a job, but I never treated it like a job. I treated it as a way of life. I don’t feel that I was naïve. I don’t feel like I was fooled. But I lost my way of life when I lost my job on Monday.
Martelli ultimately landed a role he seems thrilled about at Michigan, and life on Hawk Hill went on, strange is it may seem without as close to a fixture as there was on the college basketball landscape. That included Bodensteiner bringing in Billy Lange, a coach with an intriguing resume stuffed with local flavor, to replace the legend.
Lange had served as assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers since 2013, seeing the team through the Process and helping grow the fruit it bore into an Eastern Conference contender. Prior to that, he had two stints as a Villanova assistant sandwiched around a seven-season run as the head coach at Navy from 2004-2011. The Midshipmen produced only two winning seasons over that stretch, but played an up-tempo, disruptive style, and the St. Joseph’s administration surely banked on Lange turning that into wins in his second shot at leading a program.
That got off to a good start on opening night, as the new-look Hawks got past Bradley 86-81 in Hagan Arena. As far as mid-major on mid-major games go, this checked in as a pretty notable result. The Hawks were pegged as second to last in the league’s preseason poll, and got a talented, experienced Bradley team coming off a somewhat fluky, but still very real, appearance in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Despite gong just six-for-31 from three, a Hawks team returning just a fifth of its minutes was able to put nearly 90 points on what figures to be a stout Bradley defense, and got a breakout night from Delaware transfer Ryan Daly (26 points, 4 assists). They also forced the Braves’ wrecking ball of a point guard — Darrell Brown — into five turnovers, and if Lange’s results at Navy are any indication, the team could continue doing that to opposing lead guards.
All in all, it was an encouraging first night for a St. Joseph’s program that suddenly looks very different than it has for decades. And that’s worth tracking for the A-10 itself. Martelli never reached the towering heights he hit with Jameer Nelson in the early 2000s and that, quite frankly, is understandable. After that magical run, the Hawks were an occasional threat to the A-10 hierarchy, earning trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, 2014 and, most recently, on the back of DeAndre Bembry in 2016.
Despite an injury-wracked past three seasons, perhaps Martelli had more or less maximized what St. Joseph’s can be, a competitive-if-not-transcendent program in one of the premier mid-major conferences. But given its Big 5 mystique it seems the expectations on Hawk Hill are higher — and a jolt of energy would further help an A-10 that seems poised to return its desired state of sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament every year.
One game a season, and career, do not make, but Lange and the Hawks are off to a good start as the program officially moves on from Martelli’s legendary presence.