Cover Story: Marching Forward

UC and Xavier used the hard lessons of January to turn their seasons around

Tony Bobbitt of the UC Bearcats

It's not often you wish to praise the ordinary course of the college basketball season, an outbreak of barely meaningful games until the first of March, when every game is everything. College basketball is a festival that sets up every weekend in March, not a season.

Naturally, it's good to win in December for a persuasive RPI rating, and it's wise to win in February, when the country is buzzing about who will be in the NCAA Tournament. Because the regular season conference championships mean almost nothing, however, January games played for the sake of those championships are equally worthless.

That is, unless the team is well coached, in which case January is given a pedagogical mission. While much gnashing of teeth occurred as the cagers at Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati (UC) struggled in January, we can be sure their coaches put the pain to good use.

After March 13, it's all been worth it. That tepid Xavier team wallowing at 10-9 two months ago is now a champion and giant slayers. The UC outfit, losing for every win two months ago, now has won seven of eight and clearly was the best team in Conference USA last weekend.

Adding in Xavier's 13 wins in its past 14 games, the two teams are 21-4 since the start of February in games they didn't play against each other.

Each team won its conference tournament on March 13, taking much of the drama out of the next day's NCAA selection announcements.

When the games have mattered, these teams have been on. The worst that can now be said about January is that it showed the teams their shortcomings so they could be addressed.

Perhaps no team has ever illustrated the weight of the season like Xavier, which lost five of nine in January. In the end, it couldn't have mattered less — even winning a couple more of those wouldn't have helped too much.

The Musketeers are hot, they won the Atlantic-10 tournament last weekend and they have wins against UC, St. Joseph's and Alabama. They should have beaten Duquesne once, but it wouldn't have greatly improved their situation if they had.

It appeared in January that the Musketeers needed to either find a center or find a way to play without one. Constructively, they've done some of both as the seniors have turned it up in the past six weeks to change this team's identity. Between them in the last 14 games, the three seniors have added about half the production they lacked without David West or his like.

From the start of this 14-game Xavier streak, beginning with the Crosstown Shootout victory, center Anthony Myles has averaged 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds — 4.3 points and 1.6 rebounds ahead of his season averages entering the UC game. Moreover, he's been fairly consistent, eschewing his tendency to go away for a couple weeks at a time during the first two months of the season.

The extra dimension played especially well in Xavier's historic victory over St. Joseph's on March 11, as they knocked off the country's top-ranked team still shooting for a perfect season. The Muskies played St. Joe's tough at the Cintas Center in January, but Myles kicked in only eight points and four rebounds in 28 minutes.

With Myles producing more consistently, Xavier was a different team for the rematch. He scored 11 points with six rebounds in the first half, and St. Joe's didn't understand this new game until Xavier led 43-21 at intermission.

Romain Sato used to be a slashing forward who could hit a long jumper. During the streak, he's a furious rebounder, reaching double figures seven times and hitting nine twice more. He's averaging 9.5 rebounds during this streak, which is 2.4 rebounds better than his season average entering the UC game. Meanwhile, he's maintained his 16-point scoring average.

Lionel Chalmers used to be the villain on this team, the guy fans blamed for blowing games with bad shots. During the streak, he's not only made numerous clutch shots but is making more shots, generally, and that's making a huge difference.

Entering the UC game, Chalmers made 82 of 242 shots, a .383 shooting percentage. Beginning with that game and entering his one-for-seven blow-up in the A-10 championship game against Dayton March 13, Chalmers made the same 82 shots, but it took him only 161 attempts.

How has Xavier improved so much so suddenly? A lot is often made of the urgency of seniors playing the final weeks of their careers. The Xavier seniors have made more of it than most, adding 9.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game to their combined outputs since the beginning of February.

Last year, the Musketeers lived enviably with West, a reliable 20-10 man, in the middle of their offense. He actually averaged 20.1 points and 11.8 rebounds. To make matters worse this year, the three seniors were producing slightly under last year's levels as of the start of February.

In the last 14 games, though, the three seniors have added close to half of West to their combined scoring and rebounding averages. The rest of the team has made up for the rest of West.

Besides the four players mentioned, only three other Xavier players appeared in three-fourths of Xavier's games last year — Dedrick Finn, Keith Jackson and Will Caudle. Their per-game averages added up to 16.3 points and 6.4 rebounds. This year, besides the three seniors, Xavier has five other players appearing in at least three-fourths of its games — Finn, Jackson, Caudill, Justin Doellman and Justin Cage. Their averages add up to 28.7 points and 15.6 rebounds.

It appears the Musketeers have replaced West by a grand combined effort that wouldn't have been completed if the seniors didn't come forward. Between the additional senior productivity since January and the additional productivity from supporting characters who play enough to make a difference, the Muskies have added something like 21 points and 13.7 rebounds, actually a little better than West averaged last year.

Following last weekend's Herculean feat, banging out four victories in four days to capture the Atlantic-10 tournament, it remains to be seen if this uniquely vigorous Xavier squad will improve on the NCAA Tournament performances of its predecessors.

Only once in all its tournament appearances has Xavier made it to the Sweet 16. This team, so maligned two months ago, now is one of the country's hottest teams — and this is the time of year for a team to find its stride.

The Muskies are matched in the first round against Louisville in Orlando, a task that's turned decreasingly daunting as the season has progressed. Louisville has gone from the powerhouse that slaughtered the Bearcats to a rag-tag of tattered performers whose ability to dress the same illustrates Rick Pitino's acumen as a coach.

We would have laughed in January at any suggestion that Xavier would enter the field with a higher seed than Louisville. But there's Xavier as a seven and Louisville as a 10. And when we notice that UC also is seeded fourth in the Atlanta regional, the situation to play out is interesting, if we dream a little.

A Xavier win against Louisville sets up a likely rematch with Mississippi State, a potential top seed at one recent point and a winner against the Musketeers in December. A win in that tilt and later against Texas could occasion a rematch with UC at the Georgia Dome, provided UC beats East Tennessee State and, probably, Illinois and Duke.

The tournament could turn up all kinds of exciting scenarios. Why shouldn't it? This season is getting better every day. ©

UC, UK Play in Columbus
The Cincinnati Bearcats and Kentucky Wildcats head up the eight-team mini-tournament in Columbus Friday and Sunday. First and second round games will be played at Nationwide Arena, the NHL Columbus Bluejackets' downtown home.

Also playing in Columbus are Washington, the only team to beat Stanford this season; Big Ten regular season champ Illinois; UC's Conference USA foe Alabama-Birmingham; and Murray State, coached by former UC assistant Mick Cronin.

Here's the Friday schedule: Illinois vs. Murray State at 12:25 p.m., with UC vs. East Tennessee State to follow; UK vs. play-in game winner (Lehigh-Florida A&M) at 7:10 p.m., with Washington vs. Alabama-Birmingham to follow.

The winners play on Sunday, with potential second round games being UC vs. Illinois at 2:30 p.m. and UK vs. Washington at 5 p.m.

Tickets supposedly are sold out, but call for info: 614-292-2624 or 1-800-GOBUCKS.

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