BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DAYTON - The time for target practice is over. The Xavier Musketeers may have started this season with bull's-eyes on their backs, but beating them is no longer such a big deal.
A stationary target is bound to get strafed eventually, and the Muskies are not making much progress right now. They are still only six deep, they continue to crumble on the road, and they may soon lose the national ranking that inflated their reputation.
''You can be out of the polls as quickly as you got in,'' guard Lenny Brown said after Saturday's 93-82 loss to the Dayton Flyers. ''I think that's where we're headed right now ... We're a target, and we're going to get hit if we don't move.''
Ranked as high as seventh in the nation last month, the Muskies have since slipped to No. 19 and are 0-4 on the road since their last victory as visitors seven weeks ago. The full-court press which enabled them to embarrass lesser teams in November is producing progressively fewer turnovers and, perhaps, more tired legs at critical times.
They are 12-5, with the look of a team whose talent is too thin for a meaningful March. Before storming the floor Saturday, the UD student section taunted the Muskies with a chant of ''Over-rated.'' It has become a familiar refrain at XU road games this year, and not unfair. The bad news is that the way the Muskies are going, it may soon be obsolete.
''If we don't start playing better,'' Muskies coach Skip Prosser said, ''we won't have to worry about that any more.''
Basketball teams typically look worse away from home, where the surroundings are strange, the hosts are hostile and the referees sometimes swallow their whistles. Still, to be considered a serious contender for the Final Four, a team has to find a way to treat road obstacles as speed bumps rather than barriers.
The Muskies had every chance to do that Saturday - to turn a short bus trip into a long-awaited statement. Tuesday night, the Flyers had dropped a 13-point decision to the same LaSalle squad Xavier squashed by 37. Except for the location of Saturday's game, there was little reason to suspect the two teams were on the same level.
For 10 minutes, the relative reputations of the combatants was reinforced. Xavier's Torraye Braggs caused Dayton center Mark Ashman to commit two fouls in the first minute of the game, and the Muskies moved out to a nine-point lead.
Best shot not good enough
Yet despite shooting 60 percent from the field in the first half, the Muskies went back to their dressing room at the half with a one-point lead. Consistent with their recent play, their best shot had not been a knockout blow.
Gary Lumpkin, who made four out of six shots from the field in the first half, was one-for-eight afterward. Darnell Williams, who sank five of his first six shots, missed 10 of his last 12. (In Williams' defense, the junior forward took a hard fall with 17:35 to play, landing on his tailbone and both elbows. Half an hour after the game, he complained that he still had no feeling in his fingertips.)
Prosser spent much of the second half complaining that his players were getting hacked and not getting calls - and there were some curious oversights by the officials - but this didn't explain Xavier's defense. Inside three-point range, the Flyers made 29 out of 44 shots (66 percent).
''We've got to win games like this,'' Prosser said. ''This is the third road game that was up for grabs in the last four or five minutes that we haven't won.''
Maybe it's will. Maybe it's weariness. But the pattern is plain, and it's pretty disturbing to Muskie fans. Lumpkin, who played 38 minutes Saturday, reluctantly conceded Xavier's depth could be a concern. ''I think it probably does (come into play),'' he said. ''But I think you have to play through fatigue. Coach always says you can't let fatigue make a coward of you. When you get a little tired, you can't think about that.''
For the moment, happier thoughts are hard to come by at Xavier.