KINGSTON, R.I. — Jim Harrick isn't under a microscope at the University of Rhode Island.
Instead, he's behind a huge plate-glass window, the interior of his modest office in plain view of anyone who climbs the stairs of the field house to watch the numerous pickup games in progress on the courts below.
The scrutiny and pressure are on Steve Lavin now, and Harrick is comfortable in his exile, though the cords to UCLA--phone lines and DirecTV--still crackle with news.
The day after the Bruins' 97-81 loss to Oregon a couple of weeks ago, Harrick let out a long, low whistle.
"To get beat by 16," he said, fixating on Jelani McCoy's minutes played, and asking why, even when he knew the story.
"I'm concerned about those guys," Harrick said of McCoy--who finally left the team last week in the fallout over what sources said were positive drug tests--and Kris Johnson, who recovered from his early-season suspension. "They never had problems before."
One minute Harrick will say he doesn't want to talk about UCLA at all, and the next, he privately indulges his fixations on Lavin and Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis.
Here is his one zinger, his all-purpose shot that says they should be sorry, can't you see Lavin isn't ready, and maybe, just maybe, we'd have won it all again.
"Let me say this: I felt we would have the five best starters in America this year at UCLA. And after Kansas got beat last year, I thought maybe we could have done it last year too."
All that is past--"It's over," Harrick said--and despite his occasional veers onto the topic of UCLA, he is fairly content for a coach who was fired one season removed from a national championship for filing a false expense report and lying about it to UCLA administrators.
And why shouldn't he be?
Rhode Island is a fringe top-25 team capable of both bursts of brilliance and regular lapses. The Rams recently beat No. 24 George Washington and are coming off a double-overtime upset of No. 18 Massachusetts, a team that had beaten Rhode Island in 18 of the last 19 meetings.
"Rams Beat UMass!" blared the school's press release. "World to End?"
The Rams fell only a last-second shot shy of being the first team to beat undefeated Stanford back in December, and beat California, 72-63, two weeks ago at the Providence Civic Center.
Afterward, a wide smile spread on Harrick's face when he was asked how Rhode Island would fare in UCLA's conference.
"We'd be in the upper half of the Pac-10, I think. I think we would," he said. "But those are three pretty good teams at the top."
Rhode Island--a team hinged on the quickness and playmaking of 5-foot-10 senior guard Tyson Wheeler, the shooting of three-point threat Cuttino Mobley, another senior, and an athletic inside trio--can get its 20th victory tonight at Dayton.
The Rams, a veteran team that made the NCAA tournament last season, have a 19-6 record that will impress the NCAA selection committee. The losses are to No. 7 Connecticut, No. 10 Stanford, No. 17 Cincinnati, a one-point defeat at the hands of a solid Temple team, and a loss at St. Bonaventure, a notoriously difficult place to play. The committee has its own sense of humor, though, and an eye for a good story. Might the Bruins and Rams end up in the same bracket? Or could Rhode Island get shipped west, so Harrick would go to the West Regional in Anaheim if the Rams win two games?
"Nah, nah," Harrick said. "I think the committee takes the four best teams and puts them in each region, then the second four, then the third four, then the fourth four. . . ."
Uh, no he doesn't.
But with UCLA likely to be seeded around No. 4 and Rhode Island in the No. 6 or No. 7 range, it's not likely the teams will meet--certainly not in the first round. A No. 4 and a No. 5 can meet in the second round, though, so maybe if Rhode Island were to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. . . .
Harrick says payback can wait.
"I don't want to play them this year," he said. "They're too good. I know what they've got. Three seniors from a national championship team."
Pepperdine Minus the View
Kingston, R.I., is thousands of miles from Westwood, and feels it. For one thing, there doesn't appear to be any place in town you could run up a $1,000-plus tab at a recruiting dinner, no matter how many players attend.
The wooded, two-lane road that leads from the Interstate 95 exit to Kingston, an hour and a half or so south of Boston, is lined with gray-shingled homes, wooden churches and produce stands shuttered for the winter.
And Harrick, perhaps more than many other coaches used to the glare and glamour of the elite college basketball programs, is comfortable here.
Sure, 3,385-seat Keaney Gym is no Pauley Pavilion, but what is?
Rhode Island amounts to sort of a Pepperdine without the view, and Harrick spent nine seasons of his career there, an additional four as an assistant at Utah State.