Friday, March 14, 1997
XU ahead of its time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Why wait for tomorrow? Why not have it all today?

The overriding theme of Xavier basketball is instant gratification. The Musketeers are too young, too raw, too small to aspire to a prominent place in college basketball. To which they say: So what?

Skip Prosser's purportedly-not-ready-for-prime-time-players conducted another class in exceeding expectations Thursday night. They started five underclassmen against seasoned Vanderbilt, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with an emphatic 80-68 victory.

Youth was served at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and henceforth no one should feel obliged to ask the Muskies for their IDs. As they have demonstrated all season long, this is a team slightly ahead of its time.

''We're young,'' said sophomore forward James Posey, ''but when it comes down to basketball, everyone on this team loves the game.''

That love has been regularly requited this year despite a starting lineup comprised of two juniors and three sophomores, with a sophomore sixth man. This type of roster is usually typified by forced shots and silly fouls. But these Muskies are mighty mature for their age.

Youth no excuse

''I think if I was telling them they were young, I'd be giving them an excuse,'' Prosser said. ''And that's the last thing I want to do.''

Prosser's priority has been to win, and to win now, and this isn't quite as difficult as it once was. College basketball empires collapse every spring as underclassmen declare for the NBA draft. The team that succeeds merely in staying together can aspire to a position of power. Add quickness and selflessness - and Xavier is rich in these important components - and the sky is the limit.

The Muskies countered Vandy's superior size and experience with light feet and larceny. Their defensive pressure prompted 21 turnovers, and they often sliced through Jan van Breda Kolff's zone defense like a fox negotiating a forest.

Vanderbilt basketball is more than position and bulk, but the Muskies made the Commodores seem as stodgy as chamber music.

''They wanted to slow it down and pound it inside,'' said XU forward Darnell Williams. ''We wanted to turn up the heat. I guess we're like pests, like gnats. We don't go away.''

Extra tank of energy

Xavier played as if equipped with an extra tank of energy. They spent so much time bumping chests, waving arms, feeling their oats that you wondered how much they would have left for the stretch drive.

The answer, it turned out, was plenty.

''We kind of calmed down toward the end,'' said Gary Lumpkin, the point guard. ''We tried to execute instead of throwing up a fast shot. We knew every play down the stretch was crucial, and we were able to come up with the big plays.

''Coach stresses to us that we have to play like we're champions. Champions don't play young.''

Young teams don't always crack under pressure, but they sometimes reveal their youth through timidity or recklessness. Xavier does neither. Even after Vanderbilt narrowed a 10-point lead to three points with 9:21 to play, the Musketeers continued to attack the basket and pressure the basketball. Vanderbilt would not score again for more than three minutes.

''We were looking to get in their faces,'' said Xavier center Torraye Braggs. ''Sooner or later we knew they were going to die out there.''

This is a confidence born of conviction, a conviction which grows stronger each time Xavier runs the legs out from under another opponent.

Because the Muskies' next opponent is UCLA, the second seed in the Midwest Regional, Xavier's immediate future may be brief. But Skip Prosser has convinced a team that should probably peak next year that there's no time like the present.

''I think everybody on this team expects to win,'' Gary Lumpkin said. ''We're not thinking about next year. We've got to worry about this year first.''