BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) - It's a long way from Madison Square Garden to FAU Arena - and a journey Isiah Thomas and Mike Jarvis had to take.
Linked by high-profile tenures in New York, Thomas with the Knicks and Jarvis at St. John's, the coaches eventually wound up at Florida International and Florida Atlantic, respectively, schools hurting for national recognition before either came along.
On Saturday, they matched wits for the first time, a star-crossed coaching matchup in the Sun Belt Conference. It was all FAU: Jarvis' Owls rolled to a 106-88 win.
Thomas walked off the floor briskly when it was over, taking a last look at the scoreboard and clapping his hands.
``Without a doubt, I think there's more attention being paid to our league,' said Thomas, the Hall of Fame player who is in his first year at FIU. ``We're recruiting better players in our league and we've got some really good coaches in our league. And when you have good coaches and good players, that raises the level of the league, the level of play and the attention that the league gets.'
Jarvis is thrilled Thomas came to the Sun Belt. He even had the FIU coach autograph posters FAU made up for Saturday's game.
``It's like when I've coached against Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Calhoun or Jim Boeheim,' Jarvis said. ``Make no mistake about it, it's special.'
Thomas would likely be thrilled to be mentioned in that sort of company.
His debut season often has been rough. The Golden Panthers are 7-17 overall and 4-7 in the conference - though that's still more wins than many people expected FIU to manage this season.
``If we shoot the ball well, we're a pretty good basketball team,' Thomas said.
Meanwhile, Jarvis hasn't needed much time to get the Owls flying right. After they went 6-26 last season and were picked to be near the bottom of the Sun Belt this winter, Jarvis has put together the biggest surprise in the conference.
Florida Atlantic (12-10, 8-3) is atop the Sun Belt's East Division and appears to have a legitimate chance of becoming the fourth school Jarvis has taken to the NCAA tournament, joining Boston University, George Washington and St. John's.
``What other people think about how we're supposed to be playing, how well we're supposed to be playing, is nothing that we can control,' said Jarvis, who coached Patrick Ewing in high school and took St. John's within one game of the 1999 Final Four. ``I'd like to hope we can get better.'
Thomas entered the gym about 2 1/2 minutes before tip-off, booed by a packed FAU student section. He made it halfway across the court before cracking into a laugh.
All eyes on him, as always.
``Every time I walk into a basketball gym,' Thomas said, ``that's how it is.'
The arrival of both coaches in South Florida was met by a certain amount of skepticism.
FAU first made a splashy coaching hire in 2005, bringing in Matt Doherty, who was looking to spark his career again after the former North Carolina star struggled mightily on the Tar Heels' sideline. Doherty lasted only one season and his replacement, Rex Walters, stayed for two years before leaving for a better offer at San Francisco.
Enter Jarvis, who loves Boca Raton, even though FAU hired Doherty over him five years ago.
After that run to the NCAA's Elite Eight in 1999, it was all downhill for Jarvis at St. John's. Players got in trouble on and off the court and the program eventually went on probation because a member of the staff made improper payments to a player. These days, at least at FAU, that's all forgotten.
And the league welcomed both Thomas and Jarvis with open arms. They're only two parts of the Sun Belt's recent basketball coaching windfall - John Brady took LSU to a Final Four in 2006, then was off to Arkansas State two years later.
``These are guys coming from programs that know what type of athlete you've got to have to compete at the highest level,' Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said. ``And I don't think it's just an accident that both of those programs, FAU and FIU, are playing very well right now. ... Yes, they bring notoriety with them. Yes, they bring interest with them. But they bring an awareness with them as well.'
Thomas, too, came to FIU toting plenty of questions.
His flameout with the Knicks was the stuff of tabloid lore. Fans chanted ``Fire Isiah!' night after night at Madison Square Garden, he was the central figure in a sexual harassment lawsuit and then was found unconscious by rescue workers after taking sleeping pills at his home in the fall of 2008.
Barring a complete and immediate turnaround, FIU is on its way to a 10th straight losing season.
But like Jarvis, Thomas is loving the challenge. His team is getting better. A slew of recruits who wouldn't have given FIU a glance before he arrived last April are on their way to the Golden Panthers' locker room. Better days for both him and FIU are coming, he insists.
``Until I look up and see those Top 25 schools that they talk about and put on television all the time, I won't be satisfied until we're one of those programs,' Thomas said.
Jarvis and Thomas agree, they can get there from here.
The Associated Press News Service
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