While the battle is raging in the Middle East, the two teams said Thursday that they have a responsibility to uphold Friday and that is playing basketball and helping the nation get its mind off war for just a couple of hours. St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli might have summed it up best with his comments preceding the Hawks' practice on the St. Pete Times Forum floor.
"For the next three weeks a lot of players and coaches are going to be labeled as heroes," Martelli said. "We make a mistake in my opinion because the real heroes are halfway around the world fighting for all the things that are near and dear to all of us. I think that when you play basketball or any activity, you have to focus on that and do the best you can with that challenge you are facing.
"You need at other times to have the young men and women who are fighting, their families, you have to keep them in your thoughts and prayers. It's a very somber time and it's only by the grace of God that these kids are here and some of their buddies and kids the same age aren't coming home. It chills you a little bit. It's the coach's responsibility to teach in this situation. This is a life changing experience for these young guys. We really have to be teaching at all times in regard to the situation."
Jameer Nelson is one of the top point guards in the country. He is averaging 19.3 points per game.
While the thoughts were on war, basketball was still the main topic of discussion Thursday. Leading the nation in field goal percentage defense, St. Joseph's is basically a man-to-man defensive team, which should fit right into Auburn's strengths. With Marquis Daniels taking players off the dribble and Marco Killingsworth scoring in the paint, Hawks' defensive stopper Tyrone Barley said they have a specific plan in mind against the Tigers.
"We're going to start in the lane," Barley said. "We'll start our defense in the lane and work out from there. They get most of their points in the paint. Basically, we're going to try to cut down on the dribble penetration and basically take it from there. We're going to try to make them work to bring the ball up the court and then after that take away all the points in the paint."
Just 6-1, the junior has started just seven games this year, but with the uncertainty of second leading scorer Delonte West's health he is expected to be in the starting lineup against the Tigers Friday. That might now be good news for Auburn as the Hawks are 5-2 this season in games he starts with the losses coming against No. 11 Xavier (88-80) and at No. 22 Dayton (76-73). While he expects to begin his day guarding Auburn point guard Lewis Monroe, Barley knows he could wind up guarding Daniels and that might be a big advantage for the Tigers.
Delonte West looked good in Thursday's practice.
"Whoever is going to be the hot man is whoever he's going to take," Jameer Nelson said of Barley.
"That would be a tough match-up because he would be trying to post me up," Barley said. "The team will probably have to give me help. It will be a total team effort. From what I've seen of him, he looks like a complete player."
Something that could make a difference in Friday's game is the return to playing form for West. While still not 100 percent on a stress fracture in his leg, he was able to practice Thursday and looked good in St. Joseph's shoot-around Thursday afternoon. A strong scorer, who can take you off the dribble or shoot from the perimeter, he would add some definite scoring punch for the Hawks if he's able to go Friday.
"He was able to participate fully today in practice," Martelli said of Jones. "There are times where he catches himself. I don't think he has total confidence that he can move as freely. He certainly looked close. He's not all the way there and I'm going to sleep on it whether to start him or Tyrone Barley. I'm leaning to starting Tyrone Barley and bringing Delonte into the game. The only other time we really had to do that we played Villanova at home and Delonte scored 25 points in 24 minutes. It worked that time."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Old friends who have played golf together on several Nike Coaching trips around the country, Martelli and Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis kidded each other back and forth in their respective press conferences Thursday. After talking about Martelli's golf game, Ellis got a jab back when Martelli talked about Ellis' singing. "We bought copies for all our players," Martelli said of Ellis' CD ‘People Get Ready.' "During practice we played it real loud so that they would start screeching. It's like counter brainwashing listening to him sing."