- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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As regular-season games go, there isn't a bigger stage in basketball. Just ask Saint Joseph's, which introduced itself to the country last month by beating Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden.
The Hawks might have entered the 2002-03 season as a top 25 team, but those first impressions on the second night of the season have done more for the Hawks than any of their four wins since beating the Zags. Jameer Nelson's performance that Friday night shot him to the top of any list of point guards and will keep him in the player of the year talk all season.
Providence wasn't a preseason top 25 team. The Friars aren't one this week, either. What Providence is, however, is one of the country's best-kept secrets. And what it can do Tuesday night is introduce itself to the country in the Jimmy V Classic at MSG when the Friars take on No. 14 Illinois in the first game of a doubleheader (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
"We're looking forward to it, to get the great recognition that St. Joe's got out of their win over Gonzaga," Providence's Ryan Gomes said.
Texas, which moved up to No. 6 in this week's ESPN/USA Today poll, also can go a long way toward convincing the casual fan, to the poll voters, to the opposing coaches, and ultimately to a selection committee member, that it is a legit top 10 team by giving No. 9 Arizona a good run, if not by beating the Wildcats. Texas (4-0) has been playing in obscurity the first three weeks of the season. The Longhorns, who once again have Final Four talent, have beaten up on Brown, Sam Houston State, Centenary and Wofford.
But, it's Providence (3-1) that has the most to prove of the four teams in New York City.
The Friars were the underground "it" team heading into the season, a team that could be a surprise come the preseason. The Friars started the season by beating Alabama and South Florida at home, both good name wins, but then lost at Rhode Island on Saturday.
None of the games were on national television. And don't get Providence coach Tim Welsh started on the Big East's ESPN/ESPN2 schedule. The Friars weren't selected for the season-long slate, making him a bit peeved at the league office.
Beating Illinois, or giving the Illini a good test for 40 minutes, will do wonders for this team's confidence, not to mention its national profile. So, forget about a rather sluggish ticket drive because who is in the seats isn't as important as who will be watching at home on ESPN.
"People should be ready and eager to see us because we haven't played on TV yet," said Texas point guard Royal Ivey, who is from New York.
Arizona, however, is the Longhorns' first real test. And when Texas is finished with Arizona, it'll return to MSG two weeks later to play Duke.
Call it the "Ivey League" portion of the Longhorns' schedule. After hosting George Washington, which is no longer a gimmee, Texas returns north to play at Providence on Jan. 5. Ivey wanted to play St. John's during his senior season, but he'll gladly take games in front of the hometown fans against Arizona and Duke.
Ivey has been a stable presence at the point, jump-starting the Longhorns' offense while filling the role left behind by T.J. Ford. His backup, JUCO transfer Edgar Moreno, is more than capable at dishing the ball (6.3 apg). Ivey's averaging 10 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game.
"We've got something to show," Ivey said.
The Longhorn who might get the biggest bump from this game is freshman P.J. Tucker. Not to be confused with the T.J. Ford, Tucker is one of the most unheralded freshmen this season. Tucker (12.7 ppg, 6 rpg) has been the Longhorns most consistent player and started his career with a pair of double-doubles. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound small forward is a load inside.
Texas coach Rick Barnes said Tucker's hard work in practice is paying off in games. Part of Tucker's drive comes from his feelings being a bit hurt. You see, no one is talking about Tucker nationally. Freshmen like Chris Paul (Wake Forest) and Luol Deng (Duke) certainly deserve the praise they're getting, but a lot of their publicity stems from their games being televised nationally.
"P.J. is playing with a chip on his shoulder," Ivey said. "He was under-recruited, and now he's showing everybody he can play and play hard. He's got great hands and great footwork for being a smaller post player. He'll be a tough matchup. He's our bruiser down there, banging with guys. He loves contact and laying his body out because he's so strong.''
While Tucker doesn't have name recognition, Gomes does, but only to the hardcore fans of the sport and those within the borders of Rhode Island. For those tuning in Tuesday night for their first glimpse of Gomes, he averaged 18 points a game last season and was the Big East's preseason player of the year. But when it came time to select this year's USA Basketball squad, Gomes was snubbed for the trials last spring.
So, instead of going out to Colorado Springs, Colo., to tryout for Team USA, the power forward went back into the gym to prove that he's one of the nation's best. So far, he's once again averaging 18 points a game.
"That motivated me,'' Gomes said. "I should have been on that team. I should have had a chance to show I was just as good as anyone else with my power game."
"This is why we're playing it, this is a no-lose situation for us," Welsh said of getting the exposure for the team. "As for Ryan, he takes what the defense gives him. He has a great understanding of the game and doesn't try to force things."
"We've played in the Garden before but this is a different atmosphere, a different stage,'' Gomes said of the veteran Friars with five starters returning from an 18-14 team. "Everyone knows this is our best chance to make a run."