The other day in his office, Jim Jabir said it again: “I’m just not a political guy when it comes to our sport.”
And yet there were times here Saturday afternoon when the University of Dayton women’s basketball coach reminded you a little bit of a glad-handing politician who says what the crowd wants to hear.
Before his No. 7-seeded Dayton Flyers stepped onto storied Carnesecca Arena court for a 90-minute practice for their NCAA tournament opener against 10th-seeded St. John’s on the Red Storm’s home floor this afternoon, Jabir was brought into a session with the press.
He made nice and said all the right things:
“We’re very, very pleased to be here.”
“This is the highest seed we’ve ever had.”
“We’ve had adversity in travel and various things and we’ve been able to overcome it. … It’s just how we play, how we are. It’s our personality.”
Taken at face value, all those statements certainly are true. But in each case there’s more to the story.
A No. 7 seed is better than the Flyers got in each of the past three seasons when they made the NCAA tournament, but this time they should have had a 5 or 6. Jabir and his players especially felt that snub last Monday when the brackets were announced on TV.
Now their primary concern has refocused onto the 18-12 Red Storm, but the slight is still there beneath the surface.
After all, the Flyers are 27-2 and ranked 18th in the nation. They’ve been nationally ranked since the third week of the season, their RPI is 13th in the nation, they went 5-1 against teams in the top 50, and were 14-0 in Atlantic 10 regular-season play.
Rightly so, Jabir brought none of that up Saturday. Instead he said, “Your expectations change as your program progresses. Now it’s just not getting into the (NCAA) tournament, but it’s what our seed is, where are we playing and how can we advance. So your seed becomes important.”
Many thought the Flyers might be a four seed, but the truth is they wilted just a bit in some of their final games, especially in the A-10 tournament semifinal against Saint Joseph’s on the Hawks’ home court.
Now there’s the challenge of playing the Red Storm on the St. John’s campus in a gym named after the school’s legendary men’s coach Lou Carnesecca, who won 526 games in his 24 seasons here.
Late Saturday a couple of the St. John’s players talked about how it would fuel them to play on their home court in front of a partisan crowd. The lesser-seeded team doesn’t usually get such an advantage, but maybe that’s just the way the brackets filled up.
The Atlantic 10’s representative with the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Committee was Kathy Meehan. She’s also the associate VP of athletics at St. John’s, oversees the women’s basketball program there and was once a Red Storm player.
As to Jabir’s brief mention of travel adversity during the year, you assumed he meant the team’s bouts with snow on some East Coast trips. He never explained.
But as he spoke, the team bus was parked outside Carnesecca and was loaded with the players’ baggage. They had checked out of one area hotel after just one night when some in the party said, among other issues, they found bugs in their beds.
A new hotel finally was able to find enough rooms and get them settled in about 5:30 p.m. Saturday .
Earlier Jabir had said: “The players have amazed me all year with their resiliency and their maturity. They’ve been able to overcome a lot of tough situations all year. … That’s become their personality.”
So now comes another personality test.
As the players waited in the hotel lobby to finally get a room Saturday, they were low-key and reserved. Scratch-the-surface assumption said they were just weary, but then you remembered something else Jabir had said.
He talked about how, in years past, when the team got to its tournament hotel or saw the NCAA banners everywhere, they were caught up in the headiness of the moment.
“Everything was an event, it was exciting,” he said. “Now it feels more like it’s just another game. It’s a different animal. We’re not just happy to be here. We want to play on Tuesday (in the second round) very, very badly.
“In order to be considered a national program, we’ve got to get out of the first weekend of play.”
Spoken not like a politician, but like a coach.