After only six games, the air(ball) is leaving Xavier's basketball balloon. They are an outside-shooting team missing outside shots. The Musketeers lost twice in three days in sunny Puerto Rico, and already their year is distilled to this essence:
Which falls first: The jumpers? Or the season?
It's a crazy thing about coaching college basketball. You can motivate, you can strategize, you can watch tape until your eyeballs are whistled for traveling. You can set a record for Most Cars Rented in One Day While Chasing Recruits. (Current mark: Seven, set 20-some years ago by a Maryland assistant named, I think, Dave Pritchett.) You can offer your players famous quotations as grist for their souls, as XU coach Skip Prosser does.
It all falls apart if the shots don't drop.
This is what Prosser says when asked if his senior point guard Gary Lumpkin has confidence in his shot:
"He says he does. I think he does. I hope he does."
Can't score, can't press
Lumpkin is a church-choir kid who has been visited by a plague. After practice, he won't leave the gym until he has made 10 consecutive three-pointers. If Lumpkin applied that rule to game situations, he'd be on the court until 2066.
Lumpkin made 40 percent of his three-pointers as a freshman. He made 40 percent as a sophomore. Last year, it dipped to 30 percent. This year, it's down to 19. He isn't alone.
His backcourt partner Lenny Brown is shooting 39 percent from inside the arc and 39 percent outside of it. As a team, Xavier makes just 43 percent of its shots.
Basketball 101: If you don't score, you can't press. If you can't press, you aren't Xavier. "We're not getting the broken-court, cheap baskets off our press, the way we have in the past," Prosser said.
No wonder he spent four days in Puerto Rico and said, "I didn't know the hotel had a gift shop until Saturday," that being the Muskies last day on the island. No wonder he returned from the sun looking bleached.
No one around here believed Xavier was a top 10 team, as some national publications had decided. Too many frontcourt questions. But a 13-point loss to San Francisco?
"Lenny's percentages aren't that far off from last year at this time," said Prosser. (Actually through six games last year, Brown had made 39-of-79 shots; he's 32-of-81 now.) "Gary's percentages are."
Needs breakout game
Prosser says Lumpkin needs "a breakout game. We ran a play for him to shoot a three early against Pitt" in XU's Puerto Rican opener. "He knocked it down and we said, 'Wow, he's back.' Then he missed his next six."
Prosser says Lumpkin's form is terrific, nearly as pristine as his work ethic. He says Lumpkin has no problem taking shots, even when he's missing them. It says here Lumpkin has too much of a conscience to be a great scorer. He's a good kid, who worries he's letting down his teammates. Lumpkin needs to lose his conscience and let the shots fly.
Because without him and Brown making rain from 17 feet, the Muskies are as good as .500. Right now.
The best teams can beat you lots of ways. Right now, UC can take you inside with Kenyon Martin and outside with Alvin Mitchell. Pete Mickeal can take you both. Xavier has no inside game, and looks lost playing a half court game.
There's no relief for the Muskies. They play Miami and Purdue this week. "We have it in us to be a good team," said Prosser. "But not on Nov. 1."
Prosser found Monday's quotation in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King knew more about hardship than he did about making jumpshots, giving him two things in common with the Muskies.
"You don't find the true measure of people in times of comfort and convenience," Dr. King noted, "but in challenge and controversy." The Muskies need to find their shots. Until then, the inspirational quotes feed only their souls.
Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.