The first possession of a 40-minute basketball game is a little bit like opening day of the baseball season: Everyone is watching, but the outcome means little. Yet, as soon as the basketball went up Tuesday night and George Mason came down the floor to set up an offense, George Washington Coach John Kuester was off the bench.
"Travel!" he screamed in the general direction of any official who might be listening. "Look, right there, that's a walk!"
By nature, Kuester is not one of those wild-eyed, scream-and-holler coaches. But Tuesday was different. "I feel like I played for 40 minutes," Kuester said after the Colonials' 76-69 victory. "I really wanted to be into this game from the start."
There was good reason for this. Tuesday's game was vital to both schools for similar reasons. It was something of a harmonic convergence that brought them together in early December, not the least of it being that this is a city sadly bereft of local rivalries thanks to Georgetown and Maryland's stubborness/selfishness on the subject in the past.
Beyond that was the similarity in the two programs right now. Both have young coaches, college class of '77 -- Kuester at North Carolina, Rick Barnes at Lenoir-Rhyne -- and both are trying desperately to rise from the ranks of Division I to make a name for themselves. What's more, both were coming off victories that were as significant as any in recent memory: George Washington's stunning upset at Michigan State, George Mason's overtime victory at home over Wichita State.
Barnes has some luxuries Kuester does not. He is in his first year. He was part of the program at George Mason when Joe Harrington was building it to respectability and returned last spring (from an assistant's job at Ohio State) when Harrington went west to Long Beach State.
Kuester is in his third season and has gone 12-16 and 10-18. He isn't in any jeopardy, but he has a program in need of a boost. George Washington has only had one winning season in the 1980s (17-12 in 1984), one 20-victory season in 32 years (20-7 in 1976) and four 20-win seasons in 76 years of basketball. Its NCAA tournament record is 0-2, the last appearance coming 27 years ago.
In short, this is not a program reeking of tradition. "Do you realize," Athletic Director Steve Bilsky said Tuesday, "how long it's been since we were 4-1?" Actually, the Colonials were 4-1 three seasons ago, Gerry Gimelstob's last as coach, but that team fell apart quickly. What's more, that team had not faced the caliber of opponents -- South Carolina, Michigan State, George Mason -- this team has faced.
"That's what makes me feel good right now," Kuester said. "We've played quality teams and, if we hadn't made a couple of mistakes against South Carolina at the end, we would be 5-0. Even then, we bounced right back and showed a lot of poise at Michigan State in the crucial spots. That was really a big win for us."
Bigger than big. Michigan State is going to finish well down in the Big Ten standings this year, but it still has talent, tradition and a tough place to play. Dean Smith, Kuester's old coach and the man most responsible for him getting the job here, was one of the first to call and congratulate Kuester Saturday night. He understood what the victory meant.
Actually, Kuester and Barnes both understood what their Saturday wins meant -- if they built on them. That is why Kuester was off the bench and into the game Tuesday. That is why Barnes shook his head sadly after it was over and said, "You can't go around thinking that winning one game means you're there. You aren't. Saturday, we felt great. Now look at us. We're about as low as we can be."
It was a strange game. George Washington was about as good as it has ever been in the first half, getting excellent play from Mike Jones, Ellis McKennie and Glen Sitney. Even with Max Blank and Joe Dooley on the bench in foul trouble, they dominated the game, leading, 40-18, at halftime. They were still up by 16 with six minutes left when George Mason's quickness finally became a factor. The Patriots cut the margin to 73-67 and might have stolen the game if they had boxed out on two missed George Washington free throws in the last minute. But they didn't, and Kuester, dripping sweat, had the win he had to have.
"We're going to have to play like this to do well in the league," he said. "We have good, young talent. We're going to have a lot of these kids coming back next year and that's encouraging. But the Atlantic 10 is a tough league. We have to come to play every night to do well."
The Atlantic 10 is a league with one great team (Temple), two good teams (Rhode Island and West Virginia) and a bunch of schools that strike fear into almost no one: St. Joseph's (usually tough but down this season), Massachusetts, Duquesne, St. Bonaventure, Rutgers and Penn State. A team on the rise that plays well in the clutch could finish fourth in such a league and, in doing so, at least get an NIT bid. When you haven't been in postseason play for 27 years, that's progress.
George Mason's situation is not that different, except it does not have a sad history to look back upon. It has only played Division I ball for eight years and it not only made the NIT in 1986, it won a game. The Patriots' conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, is down a little this year, especially with three-time defending champion Navy playing without that 7-foot-1 ensign currently based at King's Bay, Ga.
That is why Tuesday was vital to both schools. You never like to lose to a local rival, but when a loss will wipe out the memory of a special victory, the pressure is magnified. Rick Barnes didn't get a lot of sleep Tuesday night. John Kuester slept soundly. Progress is progress and 4-1 is better than 3-2. In this case, a lot better.