Sunday, March 11, 2001

Pivotal day for Xavier

Program needs NCAA berth to avoid downturn

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's just one season, one tournament, one decision from 12 jurors in an Indianapolis hotel suite. And yet it could be one of the most pivotal moments in Xavier's basketball history.

        In the first season of its new era of expectations, Xavier (21-7) teeters on the NCAA Tournament's brink. Having been excluded the past two seasons, it needs an invitation tonight to avoid deflating the momentum it built steadily the past two decades.

  • Selection Show: 6:30 p.m. today (CBS).
  • Xavier's RPI: 44
  • Record: 21-7
  • Joe Lunardi ( No.8 seed
  • Jerry Palm ( No.9 seed
  • CBS No.11 seed
  • Sporting News: No.11 seed
  • On the bubble
  • Hofstra beat Delaware.
  • Georgia Tech lost to North Carolina.
  • Baylor lost to Texas.
  • Temple beat Massachusetts.
  • Boston College beat Pittsburgh.
  • BYU beat New Mexico
  • UC lost to Charlotte
  • Iowa beat Penn State.
  • Kent State beat Miami.
        “It's a turning point,” said radio analyst Byron Larkin, the school's all-time scoring leader. “You look at the program and what Xavier did starting in the 1980s; it really gained a lot of notoriety. But not going to the Big Dance three years in a row would be like almost starting over from a national perspective.”

        That's what makes this D-day.

        Get in, and this season is a success, a positive step for XU's first season in its new, $46 million arena. Miss out, and what was excused twice as an aberration becomes a dangerous trend.

        “It would be a drought,” coach Skip Prosser said. “Most times, years are judged by, did you go to the tournament or didn't you. I'm not sure that's how it should be, but it's a reality.

        “I don't think 21-7 should be viewed as a downswing. Despite the way the landscape is, I don't think missing the NCAA Tournament means your season is a failure. But I'm aware others may perceive it that way.”

        It all depends on one's idea of success.

        This is the first run of five consecutive 20-victory seasons in school history. But it could also be the first three-season NCAA drought since the program's nadir, when it missed 21 consecutive seasons from 1962-82.

        Would the glass be half-full, or half-empty?

        Thirty-nine months ago, XU held a No.7 ranking - an all-time high - and talked of Final Fours and perennial rankings. The promise of Cintas Center suggested anything was possible.

        “I think Xavier looks at itself differently in the mirror now,” Larkin said. “They always talked about being a big-time program. Their expectations along with everybody else's are raised, and one component of that is getting to the tournament.”

        When the program's goals on its locker-room wall include “national championship,” annual NIT bids won't cut it.

        Many XU season-ticket holders have said on talk shows and Internet chat boards that they would boycott future NIT games. Prosser's job would be in no jeopardy, but there would be heightened pressure for next season.

        “Your goal is to be in the Big Dance,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “That's when you get your national recognition. That affects your recruiting and everything you do.

        “(The Musketeers) made great strides getting to where they are, but they can really help themselves by getting back to the tournament.”

        XU officials insist they don't need to make the NCAAs every year.

        “Aside from a very elite few, it's hard to do that,” athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “In our league, very few teams can say they get in every year. Perhaps a realistic expectation is to be in there more often than not.”

        In the Atlantic 10, Temple — with 12 consecutive NCAA trips — is the only regular qualifier. In the 1990s, Massachusetts made seven trips and XU six (two since joining the A-10 in 1995-96).

        Prosser and Bobinski agree this season's tournament run has drawn extra scrutiny because of the missteps of the two previous seasons. The Musketeers have admitted to feeling pressure to make the NCAAs, and it showed in a 4-4 finish. Assistant coach Dino Gaudio said they played timid Thursday in their A-10 Tournament loss to George Washington.

        “They're trying so hard in every aspect of Xavier basketball that they're pressing,” XU radio analyst Steve Wolf said. “The last month and a half, everyone was consumed by being on the bubble, the coaches and players looking at RPIs instead of playing the games. Everyone was worried about (today); they talked about it and didn't do anything about it.

        “A big thing is getting in the tournament and forgetting all this peripheral stuff.”


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