Saturday, January 19, 2002

XU makes itself at home on road

Musketeers, 5-1 as visitors, face La Salle

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PHILADELPHIA - Xavier went 15-0 at home in the 1998-99 season and 14-1 there the following winter, but missed the NCAA Tournament both times.

        XU's resume those seasons lacked a key component: victories away from home. Learning its lesson, XU has become the best road warrior since Mad Max.

        “We're understanding the importance of winning on the road,” senior forward Kevin Frey said. “You can't get to where you want to go and not win on the road.”

        XU (12-3, 4-0 Atlantic 10) is 5-1 on opponents' courts this season and has won 12 of its last 16 such games. It takes its road show today to La Salle (8-8, 1-3), the second leg of a three-game road swing.

        This road run directly followed a stretch in which XU won just six of 22 away games. Road woes sunk those seasons: A 15-4 record in January 1999 dissolved when XU went 1-5 on the road down the stretch, and an 11-3 mark in January 2000 crumbled when the team lost four consecutive road games.

        The turnaround could be credited to the comeback from 15 points down last season at Cincinnati. Or maybe to the switch to black jerseys. Or maybe, simply, to the maturity of a team tired of missing the tournament.

        “We're starting to see the benefits of really focusing on (road games),” Frey said. “Nowadays, you're expected to win at home. You've gotta win the road games to win the league or reach your goals.”

        This season's efforts have been impressive. XU won at Miami and Dayton, two places it had been winless since the Pete Gillen era. XU handed Miami its worst loss in Millett Hall history. XU broke Creighton's 20-game home winning streak. XU won at George Washington, where the Musketeers had been 2-4 in A-10 play.

        XU coach Thad Matta challenged his team before the Miami game, saying, “You have a chance to do something no one in this (locker) room has done: win here.” He said the same thing at UD and challenged the team to break Creighton's home streak.

        “These guys like a challenge,” Matta said. “Maybe it's just a little added motivation.”

        XU is shooting better on the road (46.2 percent) than at home (45.1). The lone road defeat this season came at Purdue, when XU rallied from a 12-point deficit to take a lead with 3:47 left but couldn't hang on.

        The Musketeers, who have gone 7-0 the past month, have started to draw raves. “They should be in the Top25,” La Salle first-year coach Billy Hahn said.

        XU climbed to No.42 Friday in the RPI, tops of any A-10 school. XU stood at 27th Friday in the Sagarin ratings.

        La Salle is vying for its first winning season since the 1992-93 team went 14-13. The Explorers have beaten Alabama-Birmingham twice and posted impressive victories at Villanova and Seton Hall. They lost narrow decisions to GW and St. Bonaventure.

        “Winning a couple of those helps your team believe in the new system,” Hahn said.

        The Explorers, who have played just three home games, are led by 6-foot-7 senior forward Rasual Butler. He ranks fourth in the A-10 in scoring (21.3 avg.) and second in both rebounding (9.8) and field-goal percentage (46.1 percent).

        La Salle's other veteran is senior point guard Julian Blanks (8.2 ppg). Reggie Okosa, a 6-9 junior who transferred from Virginia Commonwealth, averages 11.4 points and 8.2 rebounds.


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