Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Truly, all for one, one for all

Matta already leaving imprint on Musketeers

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        During the NCAA Tournament last March, Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski was in the same Kansas City restaurant as Butler's basketball team and noted how professional the Bulldogs looked. It was a moment he recalled when choosing Matta as XU's new coach seven weeks later.

        Matta now gets the same feedback when taking the Musketeers out. He told players they would wear ties on road trips, the rationale for which they understood if they were, say, spotted in an airport. But some groused when, on the season's first trip, they wore them for a bus trip directly from XU to an Indianapolis hotel.

        The message soon stuck: It's a business trip.

        “It's the focus of "We have a job to do,'” Matta said. “I don't know how much putting on a tie helps that, but you look around and everybody has to do it, from coaches to players to managers. We're a family here, our own community. That's the way we do things.”

        Matta has put an immediate stamp on this program, making moves both great and small in hopes of fostering team unity. Bottom line aside — and few are upset with an 11-3 start — his players have been bullish about the bonding.

        “The coaches have been good about just getting to know us outside of basketball,” junior center David West said. “That's why we're able to be such a tight-knit team.”

        Matta inherited players recruited for an up-tempo style and molded them to fit his brand of basketball, one built around a conservative, sturdy defense and deliberate decision-making on offense.

        Yet much of the different feel this season owes to off-court changes, many of which are intangible.

        “When you have five new guys (the coaches) come into a family of 14 (players) and try to build a bond, it's something you can't force,” said Mario Mercurio, the program's third-year office assistant. “But the coaches have been able to cultivate a real strong bond in a short time.

        “I've never seen the players up in these offices as much as they are this year, whether it's Dave Young watching film with Alan (Major), John (Groce) having guys in to watch clips, or guys hanging out in Bill (Comar)'s office.”

        Matta demands professionalism. No wearing shorts' waistbands low — what he calls a sign of weakness in a team. He has closed practices to create a bunker mentality, saying: “It's just us here in this room. We have to rely on each other.” He favors man-to-man defense so each player has individual accountability for stopping his opponent.

        “That's the one thing about his system: You are accountable for your actions on and off the floor,” said Mike Marshall, a St.Xavier High grad who played for and coached under Matta at Butler.

        Matta trusts the team to behave itself. When XU played at San Francisco, it stayed in tourist-laden Fisherman's Wharf, and Matta let the players roam freely. He also lets them know his interest in bonding with them; he and his staff accompanied them to the Indiana-San Antonio NBA game the night before they played Missouri.

        The most oft-cited change is that Matta and his team eat meals out at nice restaurants on the road. Previously, XU would provide a buffet in the hotel and players would come and go at different times. Interaction was often minimal.

        “I think that helps a lot with team unity,” fifth-year senior Alvin Brown said of dining out. “It brings us together. We're always talking, laughing.”

        Some of this chemistry is inadvertent. Brown, who's 23, says the players have found an easier time relating to a younger staff — the ages range from 30 to 34 — than with previous coaches.

        Some is carefully orchestrated. Matta insisted the cover of the media guide depict a team huddle. In past years, top players have graced the cover. The notecards XU sends to recruits also avoid showing individuals. One set is of a simple “X,” the other, a wide-angle game photo.

        On the court, XU has gone vanilla. No pressing, less trapping. No alley-oops.

        But there have been no complaints. No one pouts about playing time, let alone playing style.

        “That's a credit to what the coaching staff has decided to do,” XU radio analyst Steve Wolf said. “They've sold the players on the team concept.”


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- Truly, all for one, one for all

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