An overcast morning here in Atlanta, clouds circling around the skyscrapers, promising rain. Fans are trickling into the city, and down at the Russell apparel booth in the lobby of the Hilton, Xavier and University of Kentucky gear is out-selling all the other teams.
For breakfast, we met up with Xavier’s all-time leading scorer Byron Larkin and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Sunderman, the Musketeers’ longtime radio announcing team, at the Metro Cafe Diner, a night-club by night and a diner all day long. It’s a neon-lit joint, all carpet and chrome with mirrors that drop from the ceiling to the floor.
The waitress recognizes Sunderman when he orders a plate of french toast, no side, and coffee. “Oh, you’re the tall guy,” she says. “Remember me, from yesterday? I was like, ‘You’re so tall!’”
Sunderman does remember–a credit to his powers of recollection because at 6’8″, he must get this a lot–and for the rest of the morning at the Metro Cafe Diner, the waitress calls him “Big Joe.”
Sunderman is carrying a list of about 10 names and numbers of the Baylor team, which he has written out in different colors and is committing to memory. Baylor is a worthy opponent, Sunderman admits, with a talented point guard in Pierre Jackson, a deadly 3-point shooter in Brady Heslip and giant rebounders under the basket. “All of them can jump out of the gym,” he says. But does he have a forecast for tonight’s game?
“Sure. Xavier’s going to win,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Sunderman’s son, Joe Jr. is also at the breakfast table. He points out a recent USA Today article he read that says teams shoot 3-pointers with six percent less accuracy when playing in a dome. “That’s what I’m banking on,” he says.
Larkin remembers playing Indiana University in the Hoosier Dome in the 1987 NCAA playoffs. “The basket was like this big,” he says, making a tiny circle with his fingers. “And it was just floating there. It was like the ball wouldn’t even fit in it.”
Larkin’s tips for Xavier are to keep Baylor off the boards, don’t turn the ball over and to recognize Baylor’s changing zone defense. Xavier’s older team and NCAA experience will help, he says.
Larkin and Sunderman have been studying Baylor’s team for the past week. Larkin has been watching their games on ESPN3.com, and Sunderman has been poring over game notes and the 17-inch sheets of paper he writes out with all the players’ statistics.
Toward the end of breakfast, Sunderman raises his coffee mug for a toast. “To Kenny Frease,” he says. “Four years and three Sweet 16s. Who else has done that?” Glasses clink around the table, and Sunderman says, more to himself than anyone else, “I love Kenny Frease.”
Sunderman, Larkin and their producer, Russ Jackson, will spend some time later today rehearsing the opening to the game. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the fireworks. Does Larkin have a forecast for the game?
“I don’t like to make predictions,” he says. “I just hope they play really well. If Xavier plays well, it’s anybody’s game.”
Back in the Hilton, the team hotel, I meet Tu Holloway in the elevator. In the few seconds between floors, I ask if he’s looking forward to the game tonight. “I’m really excited,” he says. His game face is on and he looks ready.