The NCAA Tournament is cruel.
One shot. One possession. One misstep and a coach and a team spend countless hours, days and weeks wondering what could have been in that final game instead of celebrating a remarkable season.
Phil Martelli was still sifting through these thoughts Sunday afternoon. Late Saturday night at Continental Airlines Arena, the Saint Joseph's coach was lamenting over the final possession in the Hawks' 64-62 loss to Oklahoma State in the East Rutherford regional final.
Martelli couldn't believe the Hawks fell one shot shy of the Final Four. All that prevented a trip to San Antonio was one more defensive stop. Would the outcome been different if Jameer Nelson had stopped and popped a 3-pointer instead of choosing a fadeaway jumper?
Everything seemed to be set up for the Hawks to reach the sport's biggest stage. Nelson had returned for his senior season. They won 30 games, and lost only once. They'd received a No. 1 seed.
Now, the Hawks may never so close again. Never. And, that's why the NCAA Tournament is so cruel.
Give the Hawks a best-of-three games and they may beat Oklahoma State the next two times and get to the Final Four. Or just replay those final two possessions and the Hawks might be in San Antonio.
Duke has a realistic chance to be in every Final Four. Connecticut will make return trips, if not next year, maybe the next. But this may be it for Saint Joseph's. The 2003-04 season was certainly one of the sport's most magical, yet the Hawks will ultimately remember how it ended.
Gonzaga and Stanford have had a week to digest their second-round losses, but each are still going through similar feelings this week as their coaching staffs arrive in San Antonio for the coaches convention. Gonzaga coach Mark Few was in position to make a Final Four run. The Zags were a No. 2 seed in a bracket that would have been ripe for them to win -- had they not lost the night before No. 1 seed Kentucky.
Few said that he talked to Martelli last week after he felt like he was out on a ledge, despondent on how quickly the season and the dream of a Final Four ended for the Zags. Gonzaga could still make a run someday, but everything was in line this season with a veteran team led by senior point guard Blake Stepp.
Stanford had just as miraculous a season as Saint Jospeh's and Gonzaga. Yet the Cardinal will probably dwell on the loss to Alabama in the second round. The collapse in the second half will haunt the Cardinal as they blew a 13-point lead to the Tide. Stanford, like St. Joe's, had a season to remember with only one loss in the regular season. Yet, the Cardinal will likely be remembered more for not making the Final Four. Again, that's the cruelty of this tournament.
Xavier will feel the sting of its loss to Duke Sunday in Atlanta. The Musketeers rode a wave of emotion to the Elite Eight and had a chance of a lifetime to upset the top-seeded Blue Devils, even with Anthony Myles fouling out of the game with 12 minutes remaining. It was the first Elite Eight for Xavier. Will it happen again? Maybe not for coach Thad Matta, who'll see three seniors in Myles, Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers leave. Each played to their potential, and beyond expectations, in turning the Musketeers' season around -- from an underachieving 10-9 team to an Elite Eight team.
Every year, coaches will say the toughest game to lose is the Elite Eight game. The reason is obvious. The losers are often just a possession or two away from reaching the sport's pinnacle. And then, to add insult to injury, the coaches usually go to the Final Four city for the coaches' convention. While their peers applaud them for their achievements, the coaches still have to deal with watching the team that just beat them enjoy the spoils of being in the spotlight.
Martelli said Friday that he couldn't imagine being one of those four coaches. He said he thought about whether he would still go to the Final Four events like he does every year. How would he handle all of the attention? What about the ticket requests? He's always wondered what it would be like to be one of the four coaches that everyone is talking about in the profession during the Final Four.
Unfortunately, he'll have to wait to find out. And the sad part for the Hawks is this might have been their only chance.
Sure, there is more parity in the game than ever, which allows schools like St. Joe's and Xavier (or Marquette last year) to reach the Final Four. But getting another Nelson to come through the doors at Hawk Hill just doesn't happen. Nelson was a once-in-a-program player. This season was, perhaps, the greatest in the program's history and may never be repeated.
But one shot, one possession, made for a cruel ending to St. Joe's tournament experience.
Final Four Chatter
Here's a few storylines to watch as college basketball assends on San Antonio this week:
Paul Hewitt: Can everyone please stop saying Hewitt is going to St. John's or anywhere else? Hewitt got Georgia Tech to the Final Four. Why would anyone think he would leave for St. John's?
Gene Keady: A decision is due within days on whether Keady will stay at Purdue, retire, or go to San Francisco.
Pete Gillen: Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage wouldn't say when he would decide on Gillen's fate. Littlepage is on the selection committee and has been distracted by the tournament, but he has to make a decision soon. He can't leave Gillen twisting for too long.
Auburn: UAB's Mike Anderson remains a strong favorite for this position. The case for Indiana's Mike Davis stays alive, even though Davis denies that he has been contacted about the position.
Utah: Utah athletic director Chris Hill got rebuffed in an attempt to talk to Nevada's Trent Johnson. He already talked to Eastern Washington's Ray Giacoletti but wants to talk to Johnson before making a decision.
St. John's: How do you figure out what the Red Storm is doing? This job was open in December, December! Yet, the Red Storm still doesn't know what they are doing. Obviously they haven't called Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez, so they're not going to suddenly call him out of the blue. That means Gonzalez will look elsewhere and isn't going to wait for the Storm.
Matt Doherty: The former North Carolina coach could end up getting the St. John's job, or he could be headed for James Madison. He might land somewhere by the end of the Final Four.
Georgetown: The Hoyas haven't asked for permission to speak to John Thompson III of Princeton yet, according to the Princeton administration. Every indication is that the Hoyas may wait to talk to Duke associate head coach Johnny Dawkins once the Blue Devils' season is over.
Miami: The Hurricanes are likely looking at a mid-major coach or an assistant coach. That means this job will get serious play from the likes of Gonzalez, Texas assistant coach Frank Haith, VCU's Jeff Capel and Florida State assistant Stan Jones. Money is an issue so the 'Canes might not have the cash to get a big-time coach.
San Francisco: If Keady falls through, the Dons will likely look to Arizona assistant coach Rodney Tention or Connecticut assistant Clyde Vaughan as well as IUPUI's Ron Hunter.
Thad Matta: Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski doesn't see Matta going to Purdue if it opens, or Indiana if Davis were to leave. Matta has a contract through 2013.
Awards: Nelson or Emeka Okafor? Nelson won the Naismith, but will he win the AP player of the year award?
And, of course, there will be plenty of all-lobby teams to fill as the coaches keep up the chatter ... most of which is unsubstantiated rumors.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.