Hawks hope to fly back into national radar for first time since 2004

Nine years ago Phil Martelli knew he had something special at Saint Joseph’s before the season even began.

“I knew I had the best player [Jameer Nelson] and the guy running alongside of him was pretty good,” said Martelli of his team that went 27-0 in the regular season. “They wanted each other to achieve. They knew team success meant individual accolades. This group is like that.”

The 2012-13 Hawks are considered Martelli’s finest team since that glory year. They have been tagged as favorites in the Atlantic 10 with every starter back. But they will be the first to tell you expectations mean nothing.

“Nobody cares,” said 6-8 forward Halil Kanacevic, who led the team in rebounds and assists, while averaging 8.3 points. “We got picked for last place last year. It’s nice being picked No. 1, but it’s not a big deal until we prove it.”

The key is maintaining leads. While the Hawks did go from 22 losses in 2010-11 to a 20-14 mark last year, they dropped 11 games in which they held second-half leads. That can’t happen again.

“We got ahead in a lot of games last year, but we hadn’t been there and didn’t know what to expect,” said guard Carl Jones, the Hawks’ leading scorer (17.0). “This year we’re going to know what to do. We’ve been through that atmosphere.”

With interior defense. Big man C.J. Aiken (10.9, 5.1 rebounds), the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, blocked 3.53 shots a game, fifth best in the nation. And A-10 Sixth Man of the Year Ronald Roberts (10.9, 5.9 rpg.) helps clog the lane. Put it all together and SJU figures to be a factor nationally for the first time since 2004.

“I don’t talk about anything written,” said Martelli. “I haven’t had to bring them down from the clouds. Their focus here really is on team.”

Increased expectations on the Hill

Unlike last season, the Hawks won’t sneak up on anybody. But with their top six players back and improved, that shouldn’t matter. Saint Joseph’s has all the components for a quality team (scoring balance, strong defense, a shot blocker and experienced players who know their roles).

Playing in a revamped Atlantic 10 — with newcomers VCU and Butler — Saint Joseph’s figures to hold its own against anybody. Can they meet those lofty preseason expectations and ultimately wind up in the rankings?

Don’t rule it out. It figures to be a fun season on Hawk Hill.

Projected lineup

C C.J. Aiken, 6-foot-9

Our take: Key to defense; seals interior and forces teams to shoot jumpers

F Halil Kanacevic, 6-8

Our take: Versatile forward who led team in assists and provides muscle around hoop

F Daryus Quarles, 6-6

Our take: Speedy starter; usually gives way to more physical Ronald Roberts

G Carl Jones, 5-11

Our take: Leading scorer; can hit from long range or go strong to basket

G Langston Galloway, 6-2

Our take: Athletic guard; led team in 3-point shooting (47%), size gives him advantage over most opponents