Wednesday, December 10, 1997
Xavier not quite No. 1

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

miami
Xavier didn't have an answer for Wally Szczerbiak.
(AP photo)
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OXFORD - Somewhere in Baltimore, Bruce Cunningham is cringing. He dared to be a little different, and now he has a lot of explaining to do.

The first man ever to rate Xavier University No. 1 in the Associated Press college basketball poll will be hard-pressed to rationalize the results Tuesday night at Millett Hall.

How can the Muskies be No. 1 in the nation if they are no better than No. 2 in the 513 area code? How is Miami's 80-72 upset going to play back at WBFF-TV? How does an unranked, unheralded, unspectacular flock of RedHawks manhandle the seventh-ranked Muskies?

Good questions all. The short answer is Miami forward Wally Szczerbiak, who scored 29 points and would surely be a household name by now if his name carried fewer consonants. Also, the Muskies' half-court game plainly needs some polish. Conceivably, Xavier may have had its minds on another local rival.

Yet however Tuesday's tilt is dissected, this much was manifest: If Xavier was the second-best team on the floor, it was a distant second.

''They took the game to us,'' said XU coach Skip Prosser. ''It wasn't anything our players didn't do in terms of effort. I don't think it was a big-headed thing.''

Miami coach Charlie Coles also had difficulty with his diagnosis. ''Xavier was the most staggering team, in terms of statistics, I ever looked at,'' he said. ''Great team, Xavier. But we were able to stop them tonight.''

Nobody's perfect

These things happen in college basketball. Good teams often lose to lesser teams, especially early in the season and on the road. Mighty Kansas, the No. 1 pick in many preseason polls, has already been blemished. Arizona, nearly intact from last year's NCAA title, has lost twice.

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Lenny Brown, kneeling, ponders Xavier's fate in the final moments, while Damon Frierson and John Estick help each other up.
(AP photo)
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Maybe Andy MacWilliams could have imagined that the Muskies' road to the Final Four would be pothole-free, but impartial observers always assume bumps are part of the bargain.

Still, it was hard to foresee this one. Miami had won four of its first five games, but did not seem to match up particularly well against the Muskies. Presumably, losing incumbent point guard Rob Mestas to persistent knee problems made Miami more vulnerable to Xavier's high-pressure tactics.

The trouble with full-court pressure, though, is that it works bestwhen the other team must take the ball out of bounds. In missing 16 of its 26 shots from the field in the first half, Xavier's offense prevented its defense from springing the traps that are this team's trademark.

''It all starts with not turning the ball over,'' Szczerbiak said. ''That forces them to play a half-court game, which they're not near as good at.''

December Madness

The Muskies forced nine Miami turnovers in the first half, but often squandered their steals with turnovers of their own.

'They had us rushing a lot - maybe pushing us a step or two off our plays a little bit,'' XU forward T.J. Johnson said. ''That sometimes threw the timing off.''

Xavier's game is pace rather than precision. Miami's game is more measured. When the RedHawks moved the ball across mid-court, they proved effective finishers. They had a 10-point lead before the game was eight minutes old.

Xavier would make it a six-point game with 2:17 to play, but Szczerbiak answered with a jump shot - his 11th field goal of the game - and then ran down the floor with his chest out and his arms spread, as if he were lunging for the tape in the 100-meter dash.

''We didn't find an answer to Szczerbiak,'' Prosser said, simply. ''Different guys tried, but we weren't able to solve him . . . The reason great players are great players is because they play great. Anything I say about our lack of play would denigrate what he did.''

Nothing Prosser could have said would have spoiled this evening in Oxford. At the horn, students sprinted from the stands to swarm the players. Charlie Coles wore an expression that said serenity.

''I don't know if we're any good,'' the Miami coach said. ''I think we're having fun. I hope we can keep this night for a long time.''

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