James Madison Coach Lou Campanelli compares building the Dukes' basketball program to raising a child. "The trouble is," Campanelli said today, "we didn't spend a lot of time in infancy. We skipped adolescence and went straight to adulthood."
In only its fifth season in the NCAA's Division 1, James Madison (20-8) has reached the big time. Winners of the ECAC South tournament, the Dukes will play Georgetown in a first-round NCAA East matchup at the PROVIDENCE (R.I.) Civic Center at 7 p.m. Thursday.
According to Coach Campanelli, "Our kids are licking their chops about this game."
JMU, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley about 125 miles southwest of Washington, is one of the mystery teams in the tournament. The school's sports information department has been receiving calls the last two days from newspapers as far away as Oregon, trying to figure out just what James Madison is, and what it is doing in the NCAA tournament.
"I hope nobody in Povidence knows who we are," Campanelli said. "That way, it would be easier to sneak up on somebody. Somebody called us, 'The best team nobody ever heard of.'"
The only major attention JMU has previously received since joining Division 1 came almost three years ago in a controversy with Georgetown and its coach, John Thompson.
Jeff Bullis, now a junior forward at Georgetown, was being heavily recruited by Campanelli and his assistant, John Thurston, and seemed to be leaning toward JMU. But Bulllis ultimately decided on Georgetown.
Just after Bullis' decision, Thurston wrote Bullis a scathing letter, published in this newspaper, which called Bullis, then a high-school senior, deceitful in his choice of Georgetown over JMU.
Thompson didn't discuss the sitution then, and said two days ago that the issue didn't come to mind when he learned his team would face JMU in its first-round game. "Other controversial issues have come up during my coaching years," Thompson said, "but you can't allow those things to affect the way you coach your team. I don't even think about it."
Today, Campanelli said much the same thing. "That's behind us," he said. "Neither coach has time, especially now, to reflect on prior incidents."
Thurston said the problem was "ironed out a long time ago and nobody has mentioned it until now. I've got a 2 1/2-year-old daughter who wasn't even born when that happened. "If there is any ill will between the teams, it's on Georgetown's part."
Campanelli said his only thinking about the Hoyas has been geared toward defeating them. GU (20-11) has played a tougher schedule and is a veteran of NCAA tournament pressure, having advanced to the East Regional final last season.
Campanelli points to Jmu's one-point loss here to then top-ranked Virginia, a tough, 67-58 loss to St. John's on the road and a victory over Old Donimion as signs that his team is ready to compete with nationally respected programs.
"We weren't in awe of Virginia and we weren't in awe of St. John's," he said. "So I doubt we'll be in awe of Georgetown."
The Dukes, with five Washington area natives, won 20 games by playing tireless defense and sharilng the offensive load.
Campanelli expects the slightly larger Hoyas to force the ball inside in the opening minutes of Thursday's game."We've got to get their big people in foul trouble early and make sure we don't turn the ball over before getting a good shot," he said.
The Dukes' inside play at both ends depends heavily on former Eastern High star Steve Blackmon, the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder who Campanelli calls "the best 6-foot-4 power forward in the country. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."