PROVIDENCE, R.I. - History is the next barrier in Massachusetts' way.
By way of motivating the Minutemen this season, coach John Calipari has coaxed, prodded and pushed them past real and imagined foes. Follow a great win with another great win. Learn to play well in the afternoon. Overcome the absence of Marcus Camby; overcome nemesis George Washington.
If Massachusetts is going to reach the Final Four, it will have to set a precedent. The top-ranked Minutemen (31-1) open the NCAA tournament today at the Providence Civic Center against lowly Central Florida, and if they turn their top seed in the East into a regional title, they'll become the first team from the Atlantic 10 Conference ever to get to the Final Four.
Be honest. Does your tournament pool have UMass coming out of the East, or Georgetown? The trend toward the Hoyas as the region's chic choice is not so much a knock at the Minutemen, but at the A-10, its past shortcomings and those of mid-major conferences everywhere.
UMass is trying to break through a hardwood ceiling that has seen a handful of super-conferences dominate the Final Four since 1979, a watershed year for little guys. Never mind that Michigan State and Magic Johnson won the title, the other Final Four participants were Indiana State, with Larry Bird, De Paul and Penn.
Since then, the big conferences have ruled the Final Four, with one exception. Jerry Tarkanian got UNLV a title and two other berths. Basketball logic says that the right coach can turn a program into a power with two or three good recruiting classes, but the super-conferences dominate basketball like no other sport.
Brigham Young was voted national champion in football, Cal State-Fullerton won a College World Series and George Mason is the NCAA champion in indoor track. Don't apply for the Final Four, however, unless you play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big Ten, Big Eight, Pac-10, Southeastern or Conference USA.
Still, UMass will not be held back by its lack of a pedigree.
"You have other programs who have been there [to the Final Four] before," Calipari said. "But at this point, past experience, in most cases, is not going to play a part in it. Are you good enough to get there? Does your team believe they can get there?
"Let's understand that we've taken on all comers. We've played 32 games, and only 10 of them were at the Mullins Center. The rest were at neutral sites or on the road. We've done things to prepare this team to advance in this tournament."
Calipari has says he'll trade schedules with anyone in the country, but a nonconference menu of Kentucky, Maryland, Florida, Wake Forest, Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Syracuse and Memphis is an acknowledgment that the A-10 isn't the best preparation for the NCAAs.
The A-10 has three other NCAA teams George Washington, Temple and Virginia Tech but Dayton, Duquesne, Fordham, La Salle and St. Bonaventure drag the conference's power rating and prestige down. St. Joseph's pushed the Minutemen to overtime twice, but the Hawks also lost to Loyola.
Before UMass lost to Oklahoma State in the East Region final last year, Temple was the only A-10 member even to advance to the Elite Eight. A lack of challengers has helped UMass become the first team in 45 years to win a conference's regular season and tournament titles five straight years.
"He's done what every coach wants to do," said Bradley coach Jim Molinari, who could face Calipari in the second round Saturday. "He's made a team better than its conference. He's made it a premier program by who he's played and by what it's done outside the conference. I admire him for that."
The Minutemen wear their motto, Refuse to Lose, on the seat of their practice pants and on page one of the media guide, but the talent is definitely not mid-major.
UMass reached the Sweet 16 four years ago and got the notice of a recruiting class that included Bright, who was only the best player on the best high school team in the country, Dunbar, and Dana Dingle, one of the two best forwards in New York City.
The following year, the Minutemen beat Connecticut in the recruiting war over Camby, the likely National Player of the Year, and they also brought in the Puerto Rican Express backcourt of point guard Edgar Padilla and three-point ace Carmelo Travieso.
The Minutemen aren't as deep as Kentucky, but who is? After beating the Wildcats on Nov. 28, UMass spent nine weeks at No. 1, the longest run there since Duke was top-ranked for the entire 1991-92 season. GW ended UMass' bid to become the first regular season unbeaten since UNLV in 1990-91, but the Minutemen avenged their lone loss and are No. 1 again.
"We've been a target all season long," Bright said.
And what of the fact that no A-10 team has ever gotten out of regional play?
"Really?" Bright said. "I didn't even know that."
Beginning in 1980, only UNLV - with three Final Four berths and one national title has been able to break up the super-conferences' dominance of the Final Four:
Conference .. .. .. .. FF berths .. Titles
Atlantic Coast . .. .. .. ... 16 .. .. . 5
Big Ten .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . 9 .. .. . 3
Southeastern ... .. .. .. .. . 8 .. .. . 1
Big East . .. .. .. .. .. .. . 8 .. .. . 2
Big Eight ... .. .. .. .. .. . 6 .. .. . 1
Conference USA* ... .. .. .. . 6 .. .. . 2
Southwest ... .. .. .. .. .. . 4 .. .. . 0
Pacific 10 .. .. .. .. .. .. . 4 .. .. . 1
Pub Date: 3/15/96