March 14, 2001
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There was a time not too long ago when Hofstra coach Jay Wright would have to convince New York-area recruits that the Long Island school had a legitimate basketball program.
The 13th-seeded Pride (26-4) are in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year and have the nation's longest current winning streak at 18 games. Hofstra plays fourth-seeded UCLA (21-8) on Thursday in a first-round game.
"I think the (New York) basketball community has a new sense of respect for us," Wright said Wednesday. "In the Metropolitan area, over the last two years, when we go to a recruit's house they know who we are.
"I'm not saying guys in New York City grow up dreaming of playing of Hofstra, but I think they now know about Hofstra and they know it's an option."
Norman Richardson, a senior forward from Brooklyn, had no idea Hofstra was an option when Wright recruited him.
"I wasn't even sure if they were Division I or not," Richardson said.
Jason Hernandez, who grew up near Hofstra's campus in Oyster Bay, N.Y., knew about the program but wasn't sure if he wanted to be a part of it.
"That weren't that many people going to the games, they played in a shoe box of an arena and the atmosphere was pretty dead," Hernandez said.
But like six other seniors, Hernandez gave Hofstra a chance and it's paying off.
The team moved into a new arena last season, gained some local respect by winning consecutive America East Conference titles and national respect when guard Speedy Claxton was picked in the first round of last year's NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We've played hard and we've played with heart," Hernandez said. "We've gotten a lot of fan support, too. Wherever we go, whether it's to the deli or the barber shop, people are a lot more aware of us and what we're doing."
SMOOTH RIDE: As a small program playing in the Big West Conference, Utah State doesn't get many of the perks other Division I programs do.
Travel is usually the Aggies' biggest headache, with a minimum travel time of four hours to most road games. It took them 15 hours to get to the NCAA tournament last year when they played in Birmingham, Ala.
"We have to bus an hour and a half to Salt Lake City, then we usually fly commercial, so that includes stops and layovers," coach Stew Morrill said. "It's usually not very fun."
But the Aggies traveled in first class this year, taking a chartered plane to Greensboro for their first-round game against fifth-seeded Ohio State.
"That was a new experience," said forward Shawn Daniels. "The charter was pretty smooth."
The entire trip to sunny North Carolina has been new for the Aggies (27-5). Before their trip to Alabama, they had never crossed the Mississippi River.
"I like it here, it reminds me of Belgium," said center Dimitri Jorssen, who hails from there. "It's pretty green and there are a lot of trees. It's not like Logan."
LUCKY FIND: After being abandoned by his junior college, Rahsaan Johnson has finally found a home at Monmouth and both sides couldn't be happier.
"He pretty much does everything for us except drive the bus," said Monmouth coach Dave Calloway. "That's the truth."
The 16th-seeded Hawks, who play top-seeded Duke in the first round, consider themselves lucky to have found Johnson on the playgrounds of Washington, D.C., two years ago.
Johnson had just gotten back from a trip to Allegany (Md.) College, a junior college he had helped to a 34-1 record his freshman year. Stopping by only to make sure his phone would be hooked up when he reported for classes, Johnson was stunned when he ran into an assistant coach and was told the team didn't want him - or five others - back.
"They never told me why, I don't even know if they were going to tell me if I hadn't gone there," Johnson said. "I felt abandoned."
So he returned home, where a Monmouth assistant coach recognized him while playing against him in a pickup game. He told Calloway about him and the school eventually found a scholarship to offer Johnson.
Two years later, he's helped turn Monmouth's program around. He was the Northeast Conference player of the year this season while helping the Hawks to only their second-ever NCAA tournament berth.
"We were fortunate and lucky to find out about him," Calloway said. "It's no secret he's our guy."
And Johnson feels just as lucky to have found Monmouth.
"Being in the NCAA tournament is fulfilling a dream of mine," he said. "I'm just excited to be here, excited for my teammates and excited for my school."
By JENNA FRYER
AP Sports Writer