Massachusetts Looks Like The Real Mccoy

Posted: November 19, 1991

Penn State, which won the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament last March, will compete as an independent this season before becoming a member of the Big 10 in 1992-93. Duquesne reportedly is giving serious consideration to joining the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. And the rumors continue to persist that at some point, Temple would prefer to switch its affiliation to the Big East.

But on the court, at least, the oft-maligned A-10 never has been in better shape.

A conference-record six teams received postseason invitations last March. Three went to the NCAA Tournament, where Temple advanced to the Final Eight. Regular-season champion Rutgers got in with 19 victories, the fewest ever by an at-large selection from the A-10. And Massachusetts reached the semifinals of the NIT. By season's end, the A-10 was rated eighth out of 33 conferences, in the Sagarin/USA Today rankings.

Another six postseason berths might be asking a little too much. But as many as four or maybe even five doesn't appear unrealistic. And that's not bad for a conference that's always faced an inferiority complex.

Right now, the club on the most pronounced rise is MASSACHUSETTS. The Minutemen suffered through 10 consecutive losing seasons before former Pitt assistant John Calipari was named head coach in 1988. Since then, they've gone 10-18, 17-14 and 20-13.

And Calipari, at 32 the A-10's youngest coach, has every starter back, the headliners being senior guard Jim McCoy (18.9 points per game), junior foward Tony Barbee (15.3 ppg), junior center-forward Harper Williams (13.9 ppg, 7.7 rebounds per game, 74 blocked shots) and senior forward Willie Herndon (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 40 blocks). And UMass has brought in four freshmen, including Atlantic City High School's 6-7 Louis Roe, who should see plenty of quality time.

So what's not to like?

"I'm smart enough to know that Temple is the team to beat," Calipari said. "They're always the team to beat."

At WEST VIRGINIA, fourth-year junior guard Tracy Shelton (17.8 ppg in 1989-90) returns after missing all but five games last season with a wrist injury. Without him, coach Gale Catlett too often was forced to rely on six first-year players. But those guys are all a year older. And one of them, guard Mike Boyd (12.4 ppg, 5.8 assists per game, 63 steals), is quite solid. Ditto senior swingman Chris Leonard (13.4 ppg, 53 three-pointers). Two newcomers, sophomore swingman Nenad Grmusa, who played on the Yugoslavian National squad, and 6-10 freshman Wilfred Kirkaldy, out of Simon Gratz, are expected to contribute right away.

John Carroll was chosen the A-10 Coach of the Year, after guiding DUQUESNE to a 13-15 record, its best since 1985-86. The Dukes' 10-8 showing in league play was the best in school history. Derrick Alston is a 6-10 sophomore who averaged 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and had 54 blocks. One of three returning starters, he is a definite comer. But the starting backcourt has to be replaced.

However, Carroll had to work with nine players last season who were new to the program. The Dukes might struggle a bit early, but Carroll is too sharp to let them take a step backward.

Three years ago, GEORGE WASHINGTON won once. Two years ago, the Colonials were 14-17. And last season, the first under Mike Jarvis, they were 19-12 and made a postseason appearance for the first time since JFK was president. But seven players have departed, including a pair of first-stringers. Still, the Colonials can call on junior forward Sonni Holland (13.8 ppg), junior guard Dirkk Surles (14.4 ppg) and soph guard Alvin Pearsall (5.3 apg). Jarvis has five freshmen on the roster, three of which - Robert Hammons, Antoine Hart and Billy Calloway - could provide instant help.

RHODE ISLAND has four starters back from an injury-decimated team that won 11 games. All four of them are double-digit scorers, and senior Jeff Kent (8.4 rpg) led the conference off the boards. But former Sixer Al Skinner has to come up with a replacement for Eric Leslie, the Rams' leading scorer the past three seasons. Junior Carlos Easterling, who led the team in assists (124) and steals (41), handles the point position. Freshmen guards Jason Gilliam and Carlton King bring impressive credentials.

Bob Wenzel turned down the South Carolina job to return for a fourth season at his alma mater, RUTGERS, where he must deal with the loss of three guys - A-10 Player of the Year Keith Hughes, Brent Dabbs and Earl Duncan - who combined for 50 points a night. And the non-league schedule is severely ambitious. Mike Jones (6.2 ppg), a junior guard from Pennsbury High, is probably the best returnee. Daryl Smith (7.8 ppg) and Donnell Lumpkin (5.2 ppg) also have had their moments. Junior-college transfers Steve Worthy and Alvin Rich are highly acclaimed.

In all fairness, ST. BONAVENTURE players missed 34 games because of injury and illness last season. As a result, coach Tom Chapman had to use 13 different starting lineups. Three starters are gone from a team that won five games, none in the league, and had 162 more turnovers than assists. Ten of the 14 scholarship players are sophs or freshmen. Junior forward Jason Brower (16.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is legit, as is soph forward Garland Mance (11.9 ppg). Seven new faces sure can't hurt. The best of that lot is probably 6-8 Harry Moore, from Gratz, who sat out last year as a Proposition 48 academic casualty.

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