Monday, March 12, 2001

Joy, relief for Xavier

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For a night, at least, there was no talk of winning. “Happy to be here” did just fine.

        Kevin Frey did a Jim Valvano-style run through the Xavier locker room, hugging every teammate. Lloyd Price sat on an interview stand and giggled, saying, “I'm just so happy.” Reggie Butler said he didn't even know who XU's opponent was for minutes after the announcement.

        That sound Sunday night leaking from the locker room — full of screams and cheers — was that of a two-ton weight being lifted from the Musketeers' season.

        “The monkey is off our back,” Butler said. “It's like being set free. It's like, now we have nothing to lose.”

        Call it a reprieve. Xavier (21-7) drew the 11th seed in the Midwest Region and will face sixth-seeded Notre Dame (19-9) in the first round at approximately 10:25 p.m. Friday in Kansas City.

        “After going through the down times, this is like another chance,” sophomore center David West said. “It's a chance to show people we belong.”

        It was the turning point for XU's season, and perhaps for its program. Though their 4-4 finish threatened to doom them to a third consecutive NIT, the Musketeers now have an NCAA Tournament banner to hang and rings to don.

        And their season has new life. They could admit Sunday that the pressure to make this tournament had gotten to them in recent weeks.

        “Now you're relaxed, and not so critical,” said Butler, a fifth-year senior. “Before, every time guys missed a shot, it was like, "Oh no, we're not going to the tourney.' Now we can just go play.”

        Barely. XU (No. 44 RPI) and Oklahoma State (49), both 11 seeds, were the lowest-rated at-large teams to get bids.

        Two teams with better RPIs were left out: Mississippi State (16-12, No. 40 RPI) and Richmond (21-6, 43 RPI).

        The Musketeers were grateful to Temple for beating Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals. Had Temple lost, XU and the Owls might have been in a battle for the final bid, and Temple had a stronger finish to its season.

        It also helped XU when Cinderella dreamers Baylor, Pittsburgh and New Mexico fell Saturday.

        “I was sweating bullets (watching the draw),” Frey said. “When we saw our name, I was so happy.”

        Said West: “I want to say we felt joy, but a lot of guys were probably relieved more than anything.”

        The Musketeers had controlled their own destiny until they lost twice in five days — to Dayton and George Washington — last week.

        “The worst thing you can do to a basketball player is take the ball out of his hands,” coach Skip Prosser said. “But now we get to play again.”

        The first-round matchup isn't a blind draw for either team. Notre Dame beat XU 76-64 last March in a second-round NIT game in South Bend, Ind. Both teams have much of the same personnel returning.

        The marquee matchup is at center, where West — the A-10 Player of the Year — faces All-American Troy Murphy (22.6 ppg, 9.3 rebounds).

        Last year, West guarded Murphy and held him to 5-for-14 shooting, though Murphy still totaled 21 points.

        “He's tough,” West said. “He's got so many things he can do — drive to the basket, shoot the 3(-pointer), rebound.”

        Notre Dame hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since 1990, though the core of its team got to experience a run to the NIT championship game last March.

        XU was in the NCAAs in 1998, but senior guard Maurice McAfee is the only Musketeer to have played in the tournament — six minutes against Washington in a '98 first-round loss.

        “We have guys who have a hunger to be in this tournament,” Frey said. “This is an opportunity to play for so much.”

        Prosser said he couldn't guarantee his team would lose all the jitters which bugged it the past three weeks. “But I think we'll play better than we did against GW,” he said.

        That speculation can start today. Sunday was for celebrating.

        “You just want it so badly for the players,” Prosser said. “There are some incredible peaks and valleys in this business. But you always treasure that unbridled joy like we had tonight.” tournament coverage

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