Friday, March 05, 1999

Now Muskies can relax - a little




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PHILADELPHIA — Break out the popcorn. Ice down the drinks. The NCAA Tournament is now a relatively sure thing for the Xavier basketball team, so the Musketeers can stop making meals out of manicures.

        They should be able to sit back, relax and enjoy Selection Sunday without feeling the need to gnaw on their fingernails. They have left the anxiety of college basketball's bubble assuming they have achieved the serenity of the bracket. They have traded tension for tranquility.

        “I'm not ready to do any celebrating,” Lenny Brown said Thursday evening, “but I'm definitely sleeping better tonight. Now we can play more free. Every game is not under a magnifying glass.”

(Almost) sure thing
        Officially, all Thursday's 72-68 conquest of Massachusetts guaranteed the Muskies was a place in tonight's Atlantic 10 Conference tournament semifinal against Temple. Politically, though, it was more powerful than Monica Lewinsky. Xavier's 21st victory of the season should have removed any remaining doubt about the Muskies' claim to the NCAA field of 64. A bumpy ride, it turns out, can still lead to your desired destination.

        “I thought we needed to win at least one (conference tournament) game to go,” Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. “We did and we should.”

        Prosser does not have a vote, of course, and there were a few moments Thursday afternoon when conscience might have caused him to reconsider his case. Yet on the theory that all that matters in March are wins and losses, the Muskies plainly enhanced their profile. Despite some severe wobbling, Xavier failed to squander a 17-point lead, and survived a last-minute scare.

        One of the advantages of competing in the A-10 instead of, say, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, is that a worthy team can qualify for the NCAA Tournament without winning its conference title. The Big Dance card doesn't fill up quite as fast anymore.

        Still, the Muskies understood that their whole season was at stake when the Minutemen made their move midway through the second half. They knew their record was not good enough to constitute a comfort zone, and that the Selection Committee might not look kindly on a team with six losses in its last 11 games. They came to see critical mass in UMass, a year's work boiled down to 40 minutes.

        “A lot was going through my mind,” Xavier forward James Posey acknowledged. “We had too much to lose.”

        “I was very aware of it,” said Lenny Brown. “When we lost at Dayton, I was a little scared (about the NCAA Tournament). ... We've been in a lot of close games this year and sometimes we don't come out on the right end. We had to clamp down today and we had to attack.”

Senior Brown takes lead
        Brown made this point to his teammates in an impromptu huddle shortly before the start of the second half, and throughout the game with his determined, demonstrative play.

        The senior guard scored 31 points, exhibiting his full range of skills. He scored 19 points in the game's first 17 minutes, mainly as a perimeter marksman, but later turned to penetration as his aim deteriorated. Brown was the only Muskie to make a field goal during the last nine minutes of the game, and the only one who appeared interested in touching the ball. He did what a senior is supposed to do.

        “At times, it gets him into trouble,” Prosser said. “Sometimes, Lenny takes ill-advised forays to the basket and ill-advised shots. But he's got the heart of a lion.”

        How far the Muskies advance in the NCAA Tournament will likely hinge on Brown's heart and ability to put the ball through the hoop. That is, assuming, the Muskies are in.

        “I'm still nervous,” James Posey said. “I won't stop being nervous until I see our name up there. I remember last year when Dayton was in the situation where the cameras were there (on Selection Sunday) and their bubble just popped.”

        The Muskies ought to be beyond the bubble by now. But it wouldn't hurt to keep winning.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE