Saturday, March 17, 2001

XU loss not really a surprise

        KANSAS CITY — Skip Prosser has a point. All this emphasis on the NCAA Tournament — on bubble teams and projected seedings — obscures the meaning of the regular season.

        The success of a college basketball campaign should not be judged solely by the mark a team makes in March. At least not at Xavier.

        For if the Musketeers are to be evaluated on their brief participation in the Big Dance, it would be said that they are better suited to Sock Hops. Friday's 83-71 first-round loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA's Midwest Regional was a harsh dose of hoops reality and an argument for lower expectations.

Skip Prosser couldn't find the right buttons.
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        It is what happens when a team is defined by its goals rather than its gifts.

        “You win 21 games and you lose the last three,” Prosser said in the post-midnight hush of Kemper Arena. “It's hard cause we had so many good moments. As a coach, obviously you dwell on the last one. It's a tough thing. Right now, it's hard to be all that philosophical, thinking about the big picture, because you dwell on the last 40 minutes.”

        The Muskies are David West and a roster of role players. This is enough to make them contenders in the Atlantic 10, and tormenters of Bob Huggins' Cincinnati Bearcats, but it isn't enough for a meaningful run in March. Not this year, at least. Certainly not with this draw.

        Notre Dame is not close to being an elite team, but it's hard to imagine a matchup less advantageous for the Muskies. The Irish are slow enough to be susceptible to pressure defense, but they have the size and the smarts to overcome their sluggishness. They aren't often hurried into ill-considered shots or low-percentage passes, and they can usually pass over the traps sprung by smaller players. They are the perfect antidote for Xavier poison.

        “One of the big reasons we were able to win 20 games is we were able to control tempo,” said Irish point guard Martin Ingelsby.

        If the Muskies were to compensate for Notre Dame's height and muscle, they needed to hurry the Irish into an uncomfortable pace, harass them into turnovers, and shoot the ball well enough from the perimeter to afford West the opportunity for some single coverage inside.

        None of these materialized Friday. While the outcome was still in doubt, the Muskies frequently rushed improbable shots while the Irish typically passed up good looks for better ones. Only the poor aim of Notre Dame All-America Troy Murphy -- who missed six of his first seven field-goal tries -- kept this one as close as it was.

        Yet even as Murphy seemed to be firing at a moving target, Xavier was worse. They finished 3-for-20 from 3-point range, and posed so little threat from outside that West was unable to score until the game's 15th minute. This followed a 14-0 Notre Dame run that knocked the teeth out of the Muskies' full-court pressure because it eliminated the opportunity to set up the defense on inbounds plays.

        All the while the Muskies kept misfiring from outside and leaving the Irish open. David Graves sank all seven of his field-goal tries, four of his six free throws. Matt Carroll missed only two shots en route to a game-high 21 points.

        This is what happens when a defense must gamble for steals at the risk of easy buckets. It is what happens when desperation meets discipline.

        It is the likely result of this Notre Dame team against this Xavier team maybe eight times out of 10.

        What makes the NCAA Tournament so compelling is its finality. It's one and out. It's win or else.

        It's a tough way to live, and a tougher way to define one's season.

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