Monday, March 12, 2001

Waiting, watching, agonizing over

        The difference between a wake and a party is Greg Gumbel calling your name.

        You're sitting in a locker room, silent as 3a.m., staring at a TV screen, waiting for your world to come crashing down. Or not.

        You're a bubble team. You know the other bubble teams, because you have been watching conference tournaments all weekend. Georgia is a bubble team. Creighton. Oklahoma State. ... Xavier.

        Georgia is announced. Then Creighton and Oklahoma State.

        Xavier? What about Xavier? You're waiting to exhale. One way or the other.

        This is the eye of the Madness. Still, quiet, waiting. Maddening. Or “agonizing,” as Skip Prosser labeled it. Pros
ser was so wound up with thoughts of his team's tournament chances, he didn't watch a minute of basketball after Xavier lost to George Washington Thursday. “A self-imposed blackout,” Prosser called it.

        His players watched all weekend. They knew. “We saw Georgia go up” on the screen Sunday, said David West. “Then we saw Creighton. And we said, "Awww, gawd.”

        Then they saw Oklahoma State, and all the air was sucked out of the room. To say thoughts of the NCAA Tournament gripped the Musketeers by the throat this last week is the understatement of the decade. “So much talk,” Mo McAfee said. “You can't get caught up in it. But it's hard to ignore it.”

Blown chances

        They were 21-5 and just about had it made last Sunday, until they blew a late lead and lost at Dayton.

        Win that one, you're in. That's what they figured. Players, coaches, everyone. Beat Dayton, you're Dancing. They didn't.

        OK, then. Win a game in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Beat George Washington, you're in. They didn't. The Musketeers looked tight, especially late in the game.

        Prosser's nerves were fraying. “I felt pressure for the kids. I wanted them to have this experience,” he said. “It's hard to go. It's really hard. Most of the teams that go every year are the University of Someplace.

        “I talked with Maurice (McAfee) a couple weeks ago. We talked about playing to win (instead of) not to lose. I think we might have been trying to protect” a tournament bid. “You can't protect what you don't have.”

Sigh of relief?

        A few hundred people were in the stands at Cintas Center Sunday, watching the selection show on a big-screen TV. They roared when Xavier's name appeared as the 11th seed in the Midwest. In the eye of the Madness, the team exhaled.

        “Joy or relief?” someone asked West.

        “You want to say joy, but a lot of guys and the coaches were relieved,” he said.

        Now they can just go play. This is the hope. They're in, they're chosen. They're underdogs.

        Prosser considered what he called “the fragility of it all.” A close loss here, a blown lead there. They walk the margin at places like Xavier. “It's not your divine right to go every year,” Prosser said. The Muskies are going now. Their relief burst the eye of the Madness. Like a pin in a bubble.

        E-mail: Past columns at tournament coverage

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