- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Call it college basketball’s peace summit.

Phil Martelli walked onto press row at the beginning of practice yesterday at Continental Airlines Arena, extended his hand to CBS announcer Billy Packer and said with a smile, “You owe me a pepperoni [pizza].”

It was quite a change from earlier this week, when the Saint Joseph’s coach referred to Packer with an expletive at a pep rally. Packer had strongly criticized the NCAA tournament selection committee on national television when it announced the Hawks as a No.1 seed on March14.

The network’s lead basketball analyst listed several teams he considered better qualified, suggested the Hawks had thrived mostly because of playing in the weak Atlantic 10 conference and noted Saint Joseph’s was coming off a 20-point loss to Xavier in the conference tournament.

Packer has been a prime villain in Philadelphia ever since, with Martelli leading the attack before yesterday.

“I wasn’t surprised by some of the comments [Packer] made,” said Saint Joseph’s guard Delonte West. “Coach might have taken them personally. I know Coach is going to be hyped up for the game. I know we are going to feel his energy.”

The Hawks think they already have proved plenty: a 27-0 regular season, the first No.1 NCAA tournament seeding in school history and two decisive wins on their way to the Sweet 16.

Any further doubts might be answered this week in the East Rutherford regional, the only one in which the top four seeds advanced last week. Saint Joe’s (29-1) faces fourth-seeded Wake Forest (21-9) tonight.

The plot for that game got juicier when Packer — a former Wake Forest guard who helped eliminate Saint Joseph’s from the 1962 NCAA tournament — was assigned to cover the regional.

“When I heard that Sunday night, I laughed out loud because I thought CBS really got it,” Martelli said of the network using the spat to boost ratings. “I think what Billy Packer said was in a lot of people’s hearts and minds during the year.”

Packer, a long-time ACC and national broadcaster, isn’t backing down,

“Somebody asks me a question, I give an answer,” said Packer, who has never avoided controversy. “If they don’t like the answer, they have a right to their opinion. … In a way, it is not good promotion. Whatever column inches are written about some nonsensical thing like that is taking away from the players and the teams that are playing in the game. That annoys me.”

Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser described the feud as “much ado about nothing.” But Martelli has made the most of the controversy to give the 3,200-student Catholic school unprecedented publicity.

“We really didn’t think too much of it,” Saint Joseph’s guard Tyrone Barley said. “I think it was just Martelli’s master plot to get more media attention.”

The coach feels somewhat justified in getting a top seed now that two other No.1s — Kentucky and Stanford — have been eliminated and his team is two steps away from the Final Four.

“I will admit to everybody that I felt internal pressure,” said Martelli, who is in his ninth season with the Hawks. “Let’s say we lose to Texas Tech and we are 29-2, then I think you will always have the naysayer saying, ‘We told you this or we told you that, or the team was too small or didn’t have enough balance.’ I feel the players’ reaction after that Texas Tech game showed tremendous relief and an outpouring of emotion that I hadn’t seen.”

And Martelli insists he doesn’t have a problem with Packer, even though the coach is a lifelong Hawks fan and vividly remembers the 1962 tournament. The native Philadelphian recalled Packer’s role in eliminating the Hawks in that long-ago East Region semifinal in College Park.

“Saint Joe’s was up by four at Cole Field House with 10 seconds left,” Martelli said. “We missed a foul shot, and [Packer] got a layup. They stole the inbound pass, and he got a layup to tie the game, and we lost to them in overtime.

“We don’t easily forget losses from 40 years ago.”

Or comments from two weeks ago.

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