Thursday, March 08, 2001

XU out to solidify NCAA chances

Musketeers meet GW today in A-10 tourney

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PHILADELPHIA — Fifteen days ago, Lloyd Price sat in his locker and mused about the NCAA Tournament. His voice was soft, almost reverential.

        “They say there's nothing better than the tournament,” the Xavier junior forward said. “It's time for us to get there. It really is.”

        XU (21-6) is close. Taste-it close. Its Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinal tonight, against George Washington, might be the last hurdle.

        On a team whose collective NCAA tourney experience is the six minutes Maurice McAfee played in a 1998 first-round loss to Washington, the Big Dance is mostly the stuff of legend.

        “It's an unbelievable feeling, unlike anything else,” McAfee said. “It's hard to describe in words. You really have to see it for yourself.”

        XU's streak of five consecutive 20-win seasons will ring hollow if the Musketeers miss out on the NCAAs a third consecutive year.

        “It's flat-out everything we work for,” senior center Reggie Butler said. “We'll all be judged by that.”

        Lose tonight, and doubt awaits. XU's Ratings Percentage Index ranking — which was 38th Wednesday, its lowest since De cember — would slip well into the 40s. The Musketeers would have to explain a 4-4 finish and a bad loss (GW is 131 in the RPI). . And they would subject themselves to three anxious days of waiting.

        “We just gotta rise to the occasion, because it's tournament time,” Price said. “We don't want to leave it in the (selection) committee's hands this year.”

        Then there's the other extreme. Should XU win twice or capture the A-10 title, it's in range of a strong NCAA seeding. Jerry Palm of projects XU as a No.9 seed; a tourney title might help it match its highest seed ever: No.6 (in 1990 and '98).

        XU, the A-10's second seed, played well in splitting two games with A-10 champ St.Joseph's. Fordham coach Bob Hill said XU is a far better team than the Hawks.

        “They're physical; they're quick; they have good shooters,” he said of the Muske teers. "They have good depth. They seem to have great harmony and chemistry. They have a swagger about them. They have the total package.”

        The Muskies had momentum, too, until the final 5:20 of their 65-62 loss Sunday at Dayton. They had won three consecutive games, playing free-wheeling basketball, when everything ground to a halt.

        But the late-game collapse had been prefaced by a slow pace the first 35 minutes. XU had just three fast-break points Sunday.

        “We need to get some cheap baskets,” Prosser said. “We've got to rebound it, get it out quickly and rush the ball up the floor. I thought we played too tentatively at times on offense.”

        Prosser closed practices to the media this week, he said, to help his team focus. He said his team had been a bit tired mentally, but that it has responded with good practices this week.

        There's no time to be tired. The NCAAs are within reach.

        “That's what you play for on Oct.15 (when practice starts),” Prosser said. “You don't chant, "Let's get into the NIT.' We're hungry to get back to the big show.”


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