The bus carrying the Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball team was rolling toward the Philadelphia airport late Wednesday morning, a short ride that would allow the Hawks to take a long flight, to Spokane, Wash., when somebody asked junior forward DeAndre’ Bembry about his own extended journey.
About last season, when he and his teammates went nowhere. About the year before, when SJU hit a roadblock in the NCAA Tournament, right out of the gate.
That’s the harsh reality of NCAAs, of course. It’s hard to get in, hard to stay in.
And for every team that gets to celebrate One Shining Moment, there are 67 left to confront dull, painful ones.
The Hawks (27-7) will face Cincinnati (22-10) in their NCAA Tournament opener on Friday at approximately 9:57 p.m. ET in Spokane having earned a bid by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament. They probably would have gotten in anyway, though their play late in the regular season left reason for doubt.
They dropped three of their last five games (the final one an inexplicable home defeat to a Duquesne club that had dropped eight straight), and were down by 16 points late in the first half of their A10 opener against George Washington. They rallied to win that one, then beat top-seeded Dayton in the semifinals and VCU for the title.
Bembry, the conference Player of the Year, had his fingerprints all over that run, naturally — notably when he scored 30 points on 13-of-16 shooting in the championship game.
Just as naturally, he didn’t have to think too hard when asked about the significant mileposts the Hawks have passed en route to this juncture.
There was last March, when they finished off a dismal 13-18 season with a loss to St. Bonaventure in the A10 Tournament.
“There wasn’t even a thought of us getting to the NCAA,” he said.
And there was the year before, when they reached the Big Dance and were matched against UConn in their first game. With SJU up three and 39 seconds remaining, Huskies center Amida Brimah grabbed an offensive rebound, scored, drew a foul and nailed his free throw to tie the score. UConn won in overtime, and then made an unexpected run to the national championship.
“I can still remember we could have got the rebound to seal the game,” said Bembry, who as a freshman starter for the Hawks scored 16 points that night. “I just remember that play.”
Suffice it to say, then, that he appreciates all it took to get here, and all it will take to remain.
“Being able to suffer and see the pain you go through, and actually being able to win the Atlantic 10 and get to the NCAA, is just an amazing experience,” he said.
Save that recent hiccup, the Hawks have been a resilient bunch this season. They are 8-2 in games decided by six points or fewer, and their overall victory total is the second-highest in school history. The 2003-04 club, headed by future pros Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, went 30-2 and fell seconds short of the Final Four.
Senior forward Isaiah Miles, the A10’s Most Improved Player and tournament MVP, has gotten himself into tip-top shape and emerged as the team’s leading scorer (18.4) and rebounder (8.1), and another senior, guard Aaron Brown (10.3), also scores in double figures.
Others have had their moments. Sophomore forward James Demery contributed 15 points and eight boards against GW. Senior forward Papa Ndao, one year removed from an illness that cost him an entire season, came off the bench to provide a career-high 14 points against Dayton, including four 3-pointers.
But Bembry is the team’s unquestioned motor. A scan of the stat sheet — he is scoring at a 17.3 point-per game clip, and averages 7.7 boards, 4.5 assists and 1.4 steals — only hints at his value.
The Player of the Year trophy says a bit more, in his estimation.
“I guess it’s a stepping stone for myself,” he said.
Last year, he noted, there were those who thought he was the league’s best player, but he wasn’t recognized as such because of the Hawks’ also-ran status. This year, there have been no such constraints.
“I wanted to prove that I could actually lead my team to winning,” he said, “so being able to do that, win the Atlantic 10 championship, that’s what the A10 Player of the Year’s supposed to do. And I felt like I filled that role and did as well as I could.”
Cincinnati is, as always, a rugged, tough-minded team. But Bembry argues that his squad is no different.
“So,” he said, “I feel like we’re just going to clash, and may the best team win.”
The better to continue the journey. It’s never an easy one.