Monday, March 08, 1999

XU goes from hopeful to heartbroken




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Gary Lumpkin was ready to go. Rhode Island and Temple were on the tube Saturday night, the Atlantic 10 title at stake, but Lumpkin's instinct was to leave.

        He had gone home to Delaware to spend time with his family, and now he wanted to head for the sanctuary of his sister's house and away from the awful anxiety of March Madness. The Xavier senior was nervous enough about the NCAA tournament without minute-by-minute updates on the composition of the bubble. The whole thing was way out of Lumpkin's control, and too much on his mind.

        “I was watching with my brother, Daniel,” Lumpkin recalled Sunday night. “I told him I didn't even want to watch any of the game, but he wanted to stay. I thought for a while that it would have been different if I hadn't stayed, if we hadn't watched.”

        The Musketeers assembled Sunday evening to watch the unveiling of the NCAA bracket, but most of them sensed they had been squeezed out of the 64-team field Saturday night, when Rhode Island's Lamar Odom beat Temple with a three-point shot at the buzzer.

        “My brother said, "That could really hurt you all,'” Lumpkin said. “I didn't want to believe it.”

Odom and out for XU
        Skip Prosser was at a high school game in Western Pennsylvania when Odom's three-pointer went through the net in Philadelphia. He was watching David Young, a shooting guard from New Castle who already has signed on with the Muskies for next season. He didn't learn of Odom's shot until he turned on his car radio after the game.

        “There were a few expletives,” the XU coach conceded before the bracket was announced.

        “Probably,” he said later, “Lamar Odom's shot had a lot to do with us not going.”

        College basketball is a terribly tenuous proposition this time of year. Those teams with good records and poor rankings tread a fine line between euphoria and despair. Thursday night, Prosser was convinced his team had secured a berth in the NCAA field with its 21st victory of the season. Two nights later, Rhode Island's upset of Temple earned the surprising Rams the Atlantic 10's automatic bid, rearranged the conference's pecking order and pushed the Muskies toward the National Invitation Tournament.

        “I kind of knew then,” said sophomore guard Maurice McAfee, of Odom's shot. “All week prior to the conference tournament, they were talking about three (A-10) teams getting in. I kind of knew when I saw that shot that that kind of knocked us out.”

Consolation prize
        The Musketeers tried to keep their fears to themselves. They dutifully gathered in their dressing room at Schmidt Fieldhouse to see the selection show, but their heavy tread and downcast eyes suggested a sentencing rather tha n a celebration. They switched the big-screen TV to an NBA game rather than risk hearing any more reminders of their perilous position. Down the hall, Prosser sat in a chair, resisting the urge to pace, comparing his concern to, “waiting for your kids to be born.”

        “Before, everyone was kind of jumping around, trying to keep our spirits high,” McAfee said. “After, it was real quiet.”

        There was no rage, just resignation and recriminations. The Muskies had botched too many presumed blowouts and let too many close games slip away to believe they still held a firm grasp on their fate. And yet, the sting they felt Sunday night was severe. Had Odom's shot missed its mark, or been launched a second later, the Muskies might well be the ones bound for Milwaukee with a No.12 seed.

        Instead, they must now direct their energies to the NIT, a consolation prize roughly comparable to the Miss Congeniality award.

        “I'm disappointed,” Lumpkin said, “and kind of embarrassed. We started so high (in the polls) at the beginning of the year and to not even get to the tournament at the end is embarrassing. It's heartbreaking, really. It hurts a lot.”

        Prosser told his players if this was the worst thing that ever happened to them, they would have pretty good lives. He did not say that a week from now, only 16 of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament will still be playing. You play hoops, you get heartbreak. In college basketball, March is the cruelest month.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE