Sunday, March 04, 2001

Prosser takes pressure off Muskies

Loosening up key to recent wins

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two weeks ago, Skip Prosser's Xavier basketball team was fraying at the edges, having lost two of three games and then been uptight in an unimpressive victory over Rhode Island.

        Prosser summoned co-captain Maurice McAfee, who told him the Musketeers were getting anxious about their NCAA Tournament chances.

        “They're feeling the pressure,” McAfee said.

        So, perhaps, had been Prosser, who had grown testy with the media. When he convened his team the next day, he dispensed advice he seemingly also directed at himself: Loosen up. Play to win.

        “When things should have been happy, everybody was

        looking at the glass as half-empty,” Prosser said Friday. “We said, "Quit moping. Let's be aggressive.'”

        XU responded with back-to-back blowouts, racing past St.Bonaventure and La Salle. Now 21-5 entering their regular-season finale today at Dayton, the 25th-ranked Musketeers are seemingly headed for their first NCAA berth since 1998.

        There has been both intensity and levity the past week, as the Musketeers have practiced aggressively and looked at ease when off the court. They are a reflection of their coach, who again appears confident and relaxed after a winter of growing pains.

        “This is the biggest pressure I've seen on Skip the last six, seven years,” XU radio analyst Steve Wolf said. “You move into the Cintas Center, and everybody's expecting you to do unbelievable things. You've had injuries. You've had to adjust the style of play.

        “But the pressure off the court for him rarely translates to pressure on the court, on the players. I equate it to growing up and not knowing any of the problems your parents have. The kids at Xavier don't realize how much pressure he puts on himself.”

        XU assistant coach Dino Gaudio says handling players' psyches is the biggest part of the sport today.

        “Skip has a great feel for these kids,” Gaudio said. “He knows when to go to the whip and when to give them a hug.”

        This season's stresses have been battling the per ceptions XU was a poor road team and was in an NCAA drought. Prosser challenged his players to prove doubters wrong.

        “The coaching staff said: "There's only you guys and us that care about each other. It's us against them. You've gotta find a way to produce,'” Wolf said.

        The button he pushed two weeks ago may have saved the season. Prosser began emphasizing aggression: box-out rebounding drills, battles for loose balls, fast-break practice.

        XU dusted off the full-court press it has mostly forsaken this season, then emphasized ball reversal on offense. In the past two games, it shot 49 percent, forced an average of 20 turnovers and averaged 20 assists.

        Prosser has been more patient with this team than previous ones. That's because half of the eight players in his rotation are underclassmen — rookies Romain Sato, Lionel Chalmers and Dave Young, and sophomore David West.

        Though he hammered them after a dismal loss at Wisconsin in December, Prosser was calm and reassuring to his players after the second Massachusetts loss Feb.14.

        “You have to adapt to your players,” McAfee said. “Guys who have been around awhile, he can talk to them a certain way. With the younger guys, he has been very patient.”

        Prosser archives his pregame motivational speeches and sometimes will find an appropriate talk from a decade ago to repeat. He has tried a few other tricks this season, including closing practice to the media for a week after a slump in December.

        “Sometimes (motivation) is not always yelling or screaming,” Prosser said. “Sometimes it's pulling in the reins or loosening the reins once in awhile. That's a tough balancing act. But that's what you wrestle with all the time as a coach.”


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