'Saders have 2 `old pros'; Simmons, Thomas won't be fazed.


Byline: Jennifer Toland


COLUMBUS, Ohio - Holy Cross senior Torey Thomas was surprised the Crusaders' bus got a police escort from the team hotel to Nationwide Arena for yesterday's open practice.

"Coach (Ralph) Willard joked with me," Thomas said, "he said, `If you would have made it to the (NCAA) tournament a couple more times, you would have known that.' So he jokes. He just said to really relish the opportunity and go out there and be yourself and have fun. We came here for business, but also, this opportunity only comes once."

Thomas and classmate Keith Simmons made it their mission to get here this season, their final opportunity, and here they are with the rest of the current Crusaders, in NCAA Tournament territory for the first time. Southern Illinois' seniors, on the other hand, will be playing in the NCAAs for the fourth straight year when the teams square off in first-round action at 9:40 tonight.

"I feel like that definitely makes a big difference, that they've been here," Thomas said. "The experience is always key. But for us, two seniors, our leadership, we've been in big games, we've played in big games, so we just understand the ability to keep your composure in big stages like this and help our team get through this, and I think we'll be all right."

Thomas and Simmons were like old pros during their pregame press conference last night, answering questions, as they always do, thoughtfully and eloquently.

Willard is confident the pair will handle tonight's spotlight just as capably.

"This is the NCAA, but it's also another basketball game," said Willard, who'll be coaching in the tourney for the sixth time. "We compartmentalize the game into sections. We come with a very detailed game plan, so I think by concentrating on the little things, I think you can tend to block out the surroundings and the so-called stature of the stage or the magnitude of the stage. I know the two seniors, this won't bother them at all."

Lowery is Simmons fan

Simmons was pictured on the front of the USA Today sports section yesterday and highlighted in an accompanying article as one of the "under-the-radar stars from schools seeded 11th or worse who could produce opening-round magic."

During preparation this week, SIU coach Chris Lowery has been extremely impressed by what he has seen of HC's top player.

"I was shocked how good he was," Lowery said. "I had no idea until you watch him more than once. When people say somebody's...

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