Sooners face dangerous St. Joe's team in NCAA opener

Remember Saint Joseph's? The team that was a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed four years ago. Even made it to the regional final.

Well, the Hawks are back -- but with an extra "1" in the seed. The 11th-seeded Hawks (21-12) return to the NCAA field Friday against No. 6 seed Oklahoma in their first trip since grabbing a spot atop the bracket.

Since then, St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli figures his team has been plagued by the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome.

"What can happen when you're in a non-BCS conference is, (people wonder) where have you gone and what have you done?" Martelli said. "We've had terrific years since that '04 team played in the regional final."

The Hawks even had postseason success, making it to the NIT final in 2005. But the short-lived NCAA glory faded into a memory.

This group is more Ordinary St. Joe's than the last NCAA team that went 27-0 in the regular season and had two NBA first-round draft picks. The Hawks squeezed into the field with an at-large berth after losing to Temple in the Atlantic 10 championship game.

Both the Hawks and Sooners (22-11) have enjoyed turnarounds since having postseason streaks end last season. For the Hawks, it was the end of a six-year string, a paltry thing compared to Oklahoma's 25-year streak that was the nation's longest.

The painful memory of staying home in March lingers for the Sooners, even those who weren't around to endure it.

"We remember how it was last year," said freshman forward Blake Griffin, an All-Big 12 Conference selection. "That feeling was so close, watching games on TV and seeing teams losing and you see the seniors in the last game they play on the college level.

"For me, it just kind of puts things in perspective and gives you more excitement to play."

If that doesn't do it, a much longer look back might. The Sooners made it to the national championship game following their last tournament visit to Birmingham two decades ago. Plus, they made it to the Final Four in '02 and a regional final the following season.

And if that fails to motivate? Oklahoma players can just listen to coach Jeff Capel, who logged plenty of tourney time as a Duke guard and played in the 1994 national title game.

"He tells us stories, a lot of stories about his former teams and what it takes to win games at this level and what it means to be in the NCAA tournament," center Longar Longar said. "He helps us in so many different ways to focus and understand that every game is win or go home from this point on."

Capel's advice: Have fun and have a "sense of urgency," a hard-to-achieve blend of emotions.

"All year long you try to get your guys to believe this, but when you get to this point every game really could be the last for this group," he said. "You really want to try to savor each moment and really try to lay everything on the line to try to extend your season."

The Hawks have only two players with NCAA tournament experience. Fifth-year senior Arvydas Lidzius, a little-used reserve, was on the team in 2004 and starting point guard Tasheed Carr made the tourney with Iowa State in 2005 -- making him the most familiar player to his former Big 12 rivals.

Clearly, St. Joe's is embracing the underdog role.

"Throughout the whole season, we have been pretty much seen as the underdogs," forward Rob Ferguson said. "We're kind of used to it. I think it kind of gives us a little extra chip on our shoulder."

The Hawks also get to play a team from one of those BCS schools that get more TV time and headlines.

"It's just a wonderful feeling all around," center Ahmad Nivins said. "You watch those big schools all year long and wonder how you'd match up with a team like that, and now you get the chance."

Plus, that '04 run ended with a 64-62 loss to Oklahoma State.

Remember, St. Joe's?

"I have a twitch every time I hear Oklahoma, to be honest with you, but that's just me," Martelli said.


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