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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."