Thursday, November 20, 1997
XU sends warning to America

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They take your breath away. Xavier basketball is a hand on your throat, a hard climb at altitude, a slow death by suffocation.

College basketball's 10th-ranked team opened its season Wednesday night with a 95-76 victory over the Toledo Rockets. And if this game was any indication, future opponents had better have oxygen handy.

The Muskies were in Toledo's faces like so much shaving cream, swarming, trapping, challenging the inbounds pass as if an NCAA Championship hung in the balance. If they are not yet what they will become, they are already good enough to win most of their games.

''I don't know if we got a little bit tired,'' said Toledo coach Stan Joplin. ''(But) that's why a team pressures like that. I think it started to take its toll on us ... Full court for 40 minutes - that's a lot.''

Defense covers a multitude of sins in any sport, and the Muskies were truly tenacious Wednesday. They forced Toledo into 32 turnovers - taking charges, taking advantage of the reinstated five-second guarding call, trapping at times like the best of Bob Huggins' University of Cincinnati teams.

They were sloppy in stretches. They were outrebounded overall. They were erratic in the half-court and prone to careless fouls. But on balance, for the full length of the floor, Skip Prosser would seem to have the makings of a monster.

''Our defense is going to be our offense,'' said XU guard Lenny Brown. ''You want to make the other team think that every time they make a pass, it's a potential turnover.''

For a while, it was. After a pair of James Posey free throws put Xavier ahead at 16-15, the Muskies turned up their defensive heat till the dial on the thermostat could spin no further.

Gary Lumpkin drew a charge with 11:53 to play in the first half, and turned that turnover into a three-point shot from the left wing. The next two times Toledo took the ball out, the Rockets were unable to reach their own end of the floor. Before Toledo would get another shot at the basket, Xavier's lead was at eight points.

Lumpkin was credited with two steals, but forced several other turnovers by shadowing his man closely enough to get a five-second guarding call. The rule was reinstated this year after several seasons off the books.

''I was kind of surprised by it,'' Lumpkin said. ''A lot of times in practice, I'm an arm's length away and the guy keeps dribbling. It gives me confidence to know that it will be called.''

At one point, the Rockets broke Xavier's pressure with a cross-court bounce pass, which is something you don't see every week. Or every season.

''In all my years here, I don't think that has happened,'' Lumpkin said.

But pressure induces panic, and prompts poor decisions. After each made basket, Torraye Braggs or Posey would contest Toledo's inbounds pass with long arms and vigorous leaps. A pass most teams concede becomes a mine field against the Muskies.

Typically, a hurried inbounds pass is followed by a double-team trap and, quite often, a mistake. When Toledo was able to beat Xavier's pressure, some easy baskets resulted. This is the price you pay for limiting an opponent's offensive possessions. It is a price Xavier should pay less frequently as the season proceeds.

''The pressure was good,'' Brown said. ''But we fouled too much. I think we were overly aggressive because it was the first game. We wanted to make a statement.''

A statement was made, but it was probably not be the last word Xavier will have to say on the subject.

''We've got to try to turn the pressure up,'' Torraye Braggs said. ''We can go a lot higher.''

XAVIER PAGE
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE