DENVER — The autograph hounds by the tunnel entrance to the McNichols Arena floor did not turn out for Seton Hall. They came instead for Indiana and Arizona and Nevada Las Vegas, the teams that have done this sort of thing before.
For the Pirates, it is all gloriously new. Seton Hall made its first trip to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament last season and lost in the second round. Now the Pirates are in the Sweet 16, and they play Indiana tonight for a sweeter spot, a place in the West Regional final Saturday. Here at the West Regional, they are the only team that has never been to the Final Four.
Arizona and UNLV play in the second game today.
Seton Hall's lone claim to national prominence was as the National Invitation Tournament champion in 1953, back when that tournament still meant something.
Was it 14 months ago that Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo was booed at the Meadowlands, where the Pirates play their home games? And just a month ago that he was cheered there for merely walking past the court during a game between Arizona and Duke?
Now, he is--by his own somewhat baffled admission--one of the game's hot young coaches, along with Xavier's Pete Gillen and Evansville's Jim Crews, among others.
After running his team through a public shootaround in McNichols Arena so loose and full of ease that it ended with Carlesimo attempting three 75-foot shots in a friendly bet with his players, he paused to reflect.
Last year, before a strong finish helped Seton Hall into the tournament, his job was on the line. The season's culmination earned him Big East Conference coach of the year honors, and he was awarded a five-year contract.
Things changed fast.
"It could change again 14 months from now if we don't win too many more games," Carlesimo said.
His attitude is colored in part by reaction to numerous recent firings of coaches.
"It's a disgrace the caliber of coach that has been forced to resign," Carlesimo said. "The quality of people let go in the past couple years is a disgrace. I'm just proud that Seton Hall gave me a chance. I'm very sensitive to the fact that it could be someone else sitting up here."
Could be, but isn't. Tonight, he will take his team against Bob Knight, who was coaching at Army while Carlesimo was still a benchrider at Fordham.
"He couldn't remember me playing," Carlesimo said. "He'd be lying if he saw me play. He might have seen me there, but not in the game. Those were close games."
Knight's association with Carlesimo also stems from a friendship with Carlesimo's father Pete, who until recently was the director of the organization that runs the NIT.
"I've know P.J. since he was this high," Knight said. "I think he's done a great job putting this team together."
Carlesimo \o7 has\f7 put this team together, drawing together a group that can challenge Big East rival Georgetown for Olympic flavor. Georgetown may have U.S. Olympic Coach John Thompson and Olympian Charles Smith, but Seton Hall has two Olympians of its own.
Neither one, however, is American. Carlesimo first saw Andrew Gaze, who played for Australia in the Olympics and averaged 24 points a game, when Gaze was making a tour of the Big East with an Australian team in 1986. He scored 46 points against Seton Hall, and averaged more than 30 against Big East teams.
"It was, uh, evident he could help us," said Carlesimo, who finally was able to persuade Gaze to join up only after the Seoul Olympics. Although this is considered Gaze's final year of eligibility, the school is appealing to the NCAA for an extra year. Whether Gaze would take it is uncertain. His first loyalty clearly is to his national team, of which he is the hero.
The other Olympian is Ramon Ramos, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound center from Puerto Rico whom Carlesimo first saw when Ramos was about 14 and Carlesimo was coaching for the summer in a Puerto Rican league.
The other three starters--Darryl Walker, John Morton and Gerald Greene, are from New York.
Together, the group has forged a 28-6 record that includes three losses to Syracuse--and a victory at St. John's, the school's first in 75 years.
For a victory over Georgetown, the Pirates sold out the Meadowlands for the first time ever for a college regular-season game.
All this recent success has turned heads to Carlesimo, who isn't taking much credit.
"I'm not a different coach than I was a few years ago," he insists. "It's just that the players are playing better."
Next season, with five starters likely gone, no telling what will happen in the Meadowlands.
Carlesimo has a standard response to that kind of talk. "No point in worrying."
That is precisely the easy manner and lack of obvious egotism that has made him universally well-liked by Big East coaches, a bunch known for internal squabbles. Apparently, they have set other things aside to agree on one thing the past two seasons--Carlesimo as conference coach of the year.
West Regional Notes
Arizona beat Nevada Las Vegas, 86-75, in December in a game in which Sean Elliott had 32 points and 15 rebounds. Much speculation Wednesday centered on how UNLV would try to defend Elliott this time. Said UNLV's Greg Anthony: "I don't understand why (anyone) thinks we'll do anything different. Well, I guess I could. All we've done in practice is stabilize our strengths, our man-to-man defense and pressure. He's a great player. We're going to have to have as much help as possible because he's so versatile, because of his size and because of his ability on the perimeter." . . . Seton Hall's Ramon Ramos, who injured his back in a first-round game against Southwest Missouri State, is less than 100%--he termed it 95%--but is expected to play as usual. "Even at less than 100%, he's still an effective player," Coach P.J. Carlesimo said.