Winning a conference tournament and gaining an automatic bid to the NCAA championship tournament is a source of immense pride and a confidence-builder for most teams.
But James Madison, about to make its second consecutive trip to the NCAA, has derived a peculiar sense of self-assurance and feels it has gained respect from losing its ECAC-South tournament final to Old Dominion last Saturday.
"Some people didn't respect us when we went to the tournament last year because they felt all we did was win a weak tournament," JMU guard David Dupont said today. "But receiving an at-large bid, like we have, means more respect from a lot of people."
Said senior forward Linton Townes: "An at-large bid means they picked us. It says to the other teams and people who follow basketball that we deserve to be in the NCAA this year. We're not going just because we upset somebody in a conference tournament. We belong."
When James Madison goes to Charlotte, N.C., Thursday for a first-round game against Ohio State at 7 p.m., fewer people will call the Dukes "Dolley Madison," a name pinned on them a number of times last year.
"This time," said Townes, "we'll walk in like we're one of the good teams."
James Madison, with a 23-5 record, is one of the good teams. Two of its losses came to Virginia in consecutive road games. The others were to Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth, both of which are host teams in the National Invitation Tournament.
Last year, Madison beat Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA and played even with Notre Dame before losing in the last two minutes. But the Dukes still had that we're-just-happy-to-be-here looks on their faces.
"Now, we've played against Virginia, Georgetown, St. John's and Notre Dame," said Coach Lou Campanelli, who in 10 years at JMU never has won fewer than 16 games. "Our kids have been on the court with the best in the nation. So if Ohio State beats us on Thursday, it won't be because we're in awe."
Campanelli appears unique among coaches in this region because he doesn't heap empty compliments on the opposition or his own players.
When asked to assess Ohio State's 6-foot-11 center, Granville Waiters, Campanelli said, "He's a better shot-blocker than he is a shooter. He's only very effective real close to the basket."
When Campanelli came here, in 1972, the basketball program was Division III. Since then, JMU, now in the sixth year of Division I, has won 70 percent of its games.
Beating Ohio State and gaining a shot in the second round against North Carolina is important to him for another reason. "My mother-in-law wants to see me coach against Dean Smith," he said, laughing.
The players reflect an outward respect for Campanelli because they are aware of the moderate talent on the team.
"Lou, for some reason, gets the best out of us," said Townes. "I don't know his secret, but he does it without all-Americas."
Townes is of the caliber of most of this year's second and third-team all-Americas. But college basketball fans and many coaches and players don't know about him. The NBA scouts do and he might be drafted as high as the second round this spring.
The other starters fill roles. Dan Ruland, a 6-8, 240-pound center, has a nice outside shooting touch (13 points per game on 60 percent shooting) and leads the team in rebounding with 6.4 per game.
Darrell Jackson, a 6-6 forward, shoots 57 percent and guards the opposition's toughest forward in man-to-man defensive situations. His assignment on Thursday is to contain Buckeye forward Clark Kellogg, the premier player in the Big Ten. If the Dukes advance and play the Tar Heels Sunday, Jackson probably will guard all-America James Worthy.
The guards, Dupont and Charles Fisher, have been playing together for three years and most teams know better than to zone-press them.