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.