It is that time of the college basketball season in which teams find themselves balanced on the knife's edge, unsure whether they will land on the good side or the bad side of the cut when time finally runs out.
The lucky ones will be allowed to continue the party and the others will curse their fate and wonder which was the misstep that really tripped them up. Was it that home loss, was it that road blowout, was it that rotten November night that no one really remembers?
But this, right now, might be the most unsettling time, because these last conference games can never really make teams, only break them. Somewhere, someone is watching, some computer in the NCAA tournament office is whirring away like a digital Bad Santa, keeping a list of the nice and the naughty, charting every reason not to believe.
Drexel had one of those nervous games at the Daskalakis Athletic Center last night, the Dragons' last home game of the season, against a middle-of-the-pack William and Mary team that had somehow beaten them by 13 points last week.
The Dragons came in last night with 20 wins and were still pumped over a huge come-from-behind road victory against Creighton last weekend. If Drexel gets into the NCAA tournament, its road record will be a big part of the reason. The Dragons have 12 road wins, tied for most in the country. It is the lot of mid-majors that their teams must travel to find resume-building games against top opponents. Drexel did all that, and more, getting wins at Villanova and Syracuse, among others, but for teams like the Dragons, in the eyes of the tournament committee, the successes are often explained away more diligently than the failures.
Drexel survived last night's potential case of nerves. A 24-4 run late in the first half put the Dragons comfortably ahead - leading by 40-17 at the break - and they withstood some second-half play that wasn't pretty but didn't really matter by then. Drexel had a 19-point lead with five minutes left, which was more indicative of the night than the 64-57 final score.
Now, Drexel finishes its regular season with a road game at Towson on Saturday, hoping to win there and take some momentum - that would be six wins in the final seven games - into the Colonial Athletic Association tournament the following weekend.
Do the Dragons, who should finish with 22 wins, have to win just one game, reaching the semifinals of the CAA tournament? Do they have to win twice and reach the final? Do they have to win the whole thing? Impossible to tell, because any and all are possible.
"They know the deal," coach Bruiser Flint said last night. "I told them they better get themselves ready. If they can't focus enough to understand what they need to do, then they don't deserve anything."
With Drexel, the focus has to come on the offensive end of the court. At the defensive end, the Dragons have been consistent and effective all season. Last night, as they opened with just 11 points in the first 10 minutes, they were repeating a formula that has tripped them up before. Against William and Mary on this night, however, it was enough for a seven-point lead.
"We were a little shaky, some jitters," said center Chaz Crawford. "As soon as we got it going, we were able to take care of business."
There is nothing unique about Drexel's reliance on defense and search for offense. College basketball is rife with teams that defend well. The other end of the floor is what separates the pack.
"This is one of the best teams in our league," said William and Mary coach Tony Shaver. "VCU is at the top of the league and Old Dominion is playing the best basketball, but I'd put Drexel right with those two. When they shoot well, they can beat anybody."
Flint is looking forward to next week, when he will have his team in the gym for a few uninterrupted days of practice. He hopes to tweak the offense a little bit, trying to improve a field-goal percentage that is sixth in the conference.
"We only struggle when we run bad offense," Flint said with a laugh. "When we are patient and run good offense, we make shots. When we go 1,000 miles an hour, we make a bad percentage. That's when we can get nipped."
This is the time of year when the knife hovers, looking to do its own nipping. It is the nervous time, living in that shadow. Drexel isn't immune to it, but as the biggest games approach, the Dragons look capable of making other teams nervous as well.