Even before the fat man in yellow started screaming, it hadn't been the greatest day for the George Washington Colonials. For one thing they had to hurry down to Charlotte, N.C., to play in something called the Diet Pepsi Tournament of Champions along with South Carolina, BYU and, most significantly, North Carolina. When you're not the "host" team in one of these artificial early-December mini-tournaments, it's rarely a pleasant experience, particularly when your first opponents are the defending national champs, who feature most of last year's key players and three freshmen who would give any three Dallas Mavericks night sweats.
For GW, the local hospitality ended at the sunrise buffet back at the Radisson. The Charlotte Coliseum was crammed with 20,000 or so screaming, pastel-clad Tar Heel fans, and by the time the Colonials quietly entered the arena, at least two local reporters had referred to them as George Mason University and the fans were routinely calling them the "Colonels."
But George Washington was prepared for that. When the game got under way, the undermanned Colonials burst out to a quick lead, thanks mostly to some wicked outside shooting. For a while GW's frenetic, unpredictable defense had several Heels, even hot-shooting star Donald Williams, playing like Donald Knotts. Carolina eventually regrouped, but the game was still tight at halftime, 32-28. Slowly, very slowly, this wee school that had gone 1-27 only five years ago was earning some respect.
O.K., perhaps too slowly. The wheels came off in the second half. The Tar Heels were too big, too deep, too strong to hold down, and they used the game's last 10 minutes to run away and hide. The end result was a 25-point win that wasn't nearly as decisive as the score suggested and that gave the Colonials ample reason to feel good about themselves. Carolina coach Dean Smith gushed about them afterward, and George Washington coach Mike Jarvis seemed relatively pleased, too.
That's where the screaming fat man in yellow comes in. Just before GW headed back to the Radisson, disappointed but content with a job well done, the aforementioned Colonial fan could be seen pacing outside the coliseum. As the GW players headed for their bus, the fan threw his arms skyward, kicked the wall and asked the Big Odds-maker in the Sky, "How could we lose to those chumps?"
Perception is everything. To the good people of the Tar Heel State and, indeed, to most college basketball fans, George Washington is a dead president. But lately folks in our nation's capital have come to see things differently—and they're not the only ones. It started last season when the relatively obscure Atlantic 10 Conference landed four teams in the NCAA tournament: Temple, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and George Washington. Better yet, each team made it beyond the first round, with GW advancing to the Sweet 16 and Temple to the Final Eight. (Both lost tight games to the eventual tournament runner-up, Michigan.) Temple has been tough for years, of course, and UMass actually rose to prominence during the '92 NCAA tournament when it knocked off Syracuse on its freight-train run to the Sweet 16. But Rhode Island? George Washington? Hell, even little St. Joseph's won 18 games last year.
Then along came this season. Surely, the experts agreed, the upstarts would get their comeuppance, especially given their masochistic schedules. They scoffed even as UMass waltzed into Madison Square Garden to play the top-ranked Tar Heels in the preseason NIT. "People out on the street were laughing at us," said UMass sophomore forward Dana Dingle, "like we were a joke or something." They weren't laughing for long: The Minute-men knocked off the Heels in overtime. Five days later Temple tiptoed into Lawrence, Kans., where the third-ranked Jay-hawks hadn't lost in December since 1983, and clobbered them 73-59. "This league has gotten so strong that if you want to finish first, second or third, you have to be in the Top 25 in the nation," says St. Joseph's coach John Griffin.
What's going on here? Put simply, the Atlantic 10 is eating the Big East's lunch. That's right, the mighty Big East, the Eastern power, is getting a good, old-fashioned butt-kicking by the dweebie little runt it used to step over on the way to the East Regional. Consider the logistical mambo the two conferences danced last season: Georgetown, located in Washington, D.C., fails to make the tournament for the first time in 15 years; nearby George Washington qualifies for the first time since the New Frontier. In Philadelphia, Villanova finishes 8-19: its neighbors, Temple and St. Joe's, win a combined 38 games. Boston College goes 18-13 but fails to make the NCAA tournament for the eighth-straight year; UMass goes 24-7 and makes the field for the second-straight season.
Detect a pattern here? So does the NCAA. According to its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)—an evaluation of the relative strengths of all teams and their conferences, prepared for the tournament selection committee—the Atlantic 10 was the fourth-best conference in the country last season, ahead of the Big East, the SEC and the Pac-10 (chart, right).
Check the AP poll and you see more of the same this season. Temple and UMass were both in the Top 10 at week's end, and George Washington was ranked 23rd. The only Big East teams in the Top 20 were Connecticut at No. 16 and Boston College at 20, with Syracuse also hanging in at 21.
Timing has a lot to do with the Atlantic 10's success, particularly on the recruiting front. Over the past few years the Big East's legendary coaching ranks have slipped dramatically. Louie Carnesecca retired from St. John's, and Rollie Massimino bolted Villanova for UNLV. At Georgetown it seemed that John Thompson was letting talented young players recruit him instead of vice versa, and Syracuse was hit with NCAA probation, which hamstrung its talent hunt.
The Big East's decline coincided with the arrival of a hungry crop of young Atlantic 10 coaches, including John Calipari at UMass, Al Skinner at Rhode Island and Jarvis at GW. "They've been willing to beat the bushes," says Van Coleman, who publishes Future Stars, a recruiting newsletter. Says another recruiting maven, Bob Gibbons. "The A-10 is neck and neck with the Big East."
Nobody has beaten more bushes than Jarvis and Calipari. One of GW's recruiters even traveled to Kabba, Nigeria, where he discovered 7'1" center Yinka Dare. Dare still has a lot of work to do—Dennis Rodman probably has better shooting range—but he's only a sophomore, and he played North Carolina center Eric Montross to a standoff in Charlotte and was a force the next night in a win over South Carolina.
While an assistant at Kansas and Pitt, Calipari was a legendary "camp rat," one of those coaches who would live at recruiting camps if the NCAA allowed it. He's still omnipresent—and earning huge dividends. In his five years at UMass, he has landed some high-profile recruits such as junior All-America candidate Lou Roe, a ferocious rebounder and former New Jersey high school Player of the Year. But this year he landed the biggest fish yet: 6'11" freshman Marcus Camby, who should return soon from a knee injury and may turn out to be the best freshman big man in the country.
Calipari's charm and perseverance are unquestionable, but he's the first to say that all the courting in the world doesn't mean much without perhaps the biggest lure of all: television. "Kids wanna hear, 'You're gonna be on TV,' " Calipari says. "If you're not a major program, there's only one way you can do that—and we just followed Temple's blueprint."
That blueprint, drawn up by Temple coach John Chancy, is simple: Play the toughest competition anywhere, anytime, as long as the game is on television. Indeed, for all of Chaney's old-school ways—his grueling 5:30 a.m. practices, his disdain for showboating and trash talk—he is the quintessential TV coach. "The only thing a kid knows is what's in front of his nose, and that's the TV set," says Chaney, who now boasts two likely NBA first-rounders in seniors Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones. "I'm not going to go out and play teams that are not highly visible. It's the basis of recruitment, irrespective of whether you win or lose."
Which brings us to the "good loss" philosophy that has spurred the Atlantic 10's rise. When a team loses by two or three points at, say, North Carolina, it's a good loss, the thinking goes, because the RPI will reflect the degree of difficulty, and the team might also get some much-needed television exposure. It will also make the team stronger at tournament time. Ergo, Temple's nonconference schedule this season includes Kansas, Cincinnati, Louisville and Duke; by March, UMass will somehow have played North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Florida State and Kentucky. Meanwhile, Temple and UMass will have played each other twice—or perhaps three times if they meet in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Moreover, the lion's share of these games are on the road. (Most top-ranked teams would rather not face Temple in its 3,900-seat snake pit, McGonigle Hall.) "In order to get going, our teams had to schedule a lot of two-for-ones at Kansas or North Carolina or wherever," says Atlantic 10 commissioner Ron Bertovich. "It's the price you pay."
But as the Atlantic 10 has risen, so have its standards. When Calipari was hired at UMass five years ago, he immediately found 40 please-call messages stacked on his desk. Congratulations, he figured. But no. "They were schools asking, 'Need any games?' " Calipari recalls. That's how lousy UMass was. "We signed a two-for-one with Billy Tubbs at Oklahoma, but now I'm sick that we did it. Here he is getting a free game from us." Just for good measure the Minutemen fulfilled that commitment by beating the Sooners 84-83 on Nov. 28 in Norman.
Chaney points out that Cincinnati and Duke have been good enough to agree to come to McGonigle—or, as he likes to call it, "my little mud hut"—but he knows his conference still has some demons to slay, particularly the most insidious kind: rumors. The coaches hear them all the time, the whispers about how the Atlantic 10 does it the slimy way, does it by recruiting the type of players who don't have the grades to get into the Big East—or, for that matter, the Big Ten or the ACC. And it is true that several Atlantic 10 teams have signed Proposition 48 recruits such as Temple's McKie and Jones and UMass's 6'6" forward Donta Bright. And GW is apparently still interested in signing controversial Parade All-America Allen Iverson, who has been in jail since September because of his role in a bowling alley fight.
In its own defense the Atlantic 10 parries by saying that the education of riskier students is part of its mission. It used to be that the Big East was considered the preeminent "city conference," but that was always a misconception; after all, the Georgetown, Syracuse and Boston College campuses aren't exactly in the inner city. The Atlantic 10 is more of a true city conference, and Chancy has persuasively maintained for years that inner-city schools have a responsibility to give borderline students the opportunity to make it in college. "A school like Temple may have a different academic mission than other schools," Jarvis argues. "And it's up to the institution, not the basketball coach, to decide on a student."
So the Atlantic 10 should start making its Final Four hotel reservations for the next decade, right? Not necessarily. Ironically, the medium it has so sagely exploited, television, still remains the greatest barrier to its continued success. The league has four games scheduled on ABC this February, more than ever before, and ESPN will feature Atlantic 10 teams on 20 broadcasts. But a major TV deal on par with the Big East's seems unlikely for now. The Big East will take in an estimated $12 million this season from its deals with CBS, ESPN and various local syndicators; the Atlantic 10, by contrast, will gross about $1 million.
Ask Coach Griffin what the conference needs most and he says, "An ESPN game of the week." But press him and his colleagues further and they'll acknowledge that the league needs to raise its national profile considerably and pump up some compelling intraconference rivalries before the networks will open their coffers.
There are other hurdles as well. The largest among them is the current trend toward SEC-style conference super-mergers. Duquesne and St. Bonaventure, two of the Atlantic 10's weaker links, are worried by rumors that the Big East might enter into a devastating corporate merger of sorts with some A-10 schools. Temple, West Virginia and Rutgers are all members of the Big East football conference, and rumor has it that those three schools recently requested full membership. (Of course the question remains why Big East schools with no significant stake in football—Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall—would want to share the basketball pie with even more schools.)
More certain is the fact that the rival Big East isn't just going to roll over and die. Television revenue, huge arenas, stronger traditions—all of these strengths give it a decided edge in the long term. And, says commissioner Bertovich, "They know we're out here, it seems." Recruiting experts say the reenergized Big East has already landed several key recruits for next season. Boston College recently shored up one of the top-five incoming classes in the country when it netted local All-America guard Chris Herren, whom a disappointed Calipari had tried to recruit. And unlike the Big East, the Atlantic 10 has a way to go before its second-tier teams become attractive to high school prospects. Trotting out Norm Nixon's name only gets Duquesne so far these days.
But that's the future. For now, Atlantic 10 teams simply have to worry about getting through their murderous schedules, not to mention satisfying all those brilliantly clad fans who suddenly expect them to routinely attract Parade All-Americas as if they were, say, North Carolina. "Yeah, some of our fans may have unreasonable expectations," says Jarvis, laughing. "That's how it is for anybody who starts to win. But we know we'll never have it like Duke, Michigan or North Carolina." Those chumps.
The NCAA uses an eye-glazing formula based on teams' won-lost records, the records of their opponents and the records of their opponents' opponents to come up with a yearly power rating of Division I conferences. Last year's Top 10 were as follows:
2. Big 10
3. Big Eight
4. Atlantic 10
5. Great Midwest
6. Big East