Friday, November 16, 2001

Muskies hope to build upon defense

Players embrace Matta's concepts

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Xavier is coming off one of its finest defensive seasons in history. The intriguing part is that it had an offensive-minded coach.

        Though Skip Prosser employed a gambling, attacking defense — which he toned down quite a bit last year — new coach Thad Matta prefers a patient, half-court look that slowly suffocates an offense. He wants opponents to simply lack open looks, panicking as the shot clock slowly expires.

        He has found defensive disciples, eager to build on the surprising success of their defense last season.

        “Defense is everything,” Kevin Frey said.

        “You've got to be able to stop teams in the half-court,” David West said.

        “I love this defense,” Dave Young said.

        Matta's every belief points toward preparing teams for March, when possessions are critical and fundamental play is paramount. That was borne out in the NCAA Tournament this spring, when his Butler team hammered Wake Forest 79-63 — after leading 43-10 at halftime.

        Butler allowed 43.8 percent shooting by its opponents last year, and its 60.8 defensive scoring average ranked ninth in the nation.

        “At Butler, we were so small,” Matta said. “With the good size and quickness we have here, we should be able to challenge better than (teams Matta has coached) have done in the past.”

        XU allowed just 40.6 percent shooting last season, its finest mark in 39 years, and the 29.7 percent opponents shot on 3-pointers was the lowest such figure in XU history. The Musketeers allowed 65.9 points a game, second-best in the Atlantic 10.

        Four of XU's top six players return, lending continuity. West set a single-season shots-blocked record with 61.

        With just nine scholarship players, the absence of the full-court press also could mean a better-rested bunch.

        “As far as a fatigue factor, this will really save our legs,” Young said.

        Matta employs strict man-to-man defense, saying he expects each player to have accountability for stopping his opponent. Those who fail, sit.

        “He'll talk about building a wall,” Butler assistant Mike Marshall said of Matta. “If the ball goes inside the 3-point line, the guards will try to dig it out. Everything will be a contested shot.”

        Despite the impressive numbers of last winter, the Musketeers say their defense can improve.

        “We feel we had some breakdowns last year that we shouldn't have,” Frey said. “We're not really concerned with what the numbers say. We just need to be tougher mentally.”


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