Sunday, January 27, 2002

XU's the best show off broadway




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        Xavier's biggest problem in basketball is proximity. The Musketeers are too good to escape recognition, but too close to the University of Cincinnati to escape its shadow.

        They are defined less by the deeds of a long season than in the narrow context of their crosstown competition. This being a bad year to be measured against the Bearcats, it's an unfair fate.

        For if the Muskies aren't quite equal to the nation's fourth-ranked college team, they are nonetheless worthy of note. Saturday's 75-59 drubbing of the Dayton Flyers was Xavier's 10th straight victory, extended its spotless Atlantic 10 start to 7-0 and polished an image tarnished by UC's December domination.

        In their first national TV appearance since the Crosstown Blowout, the Muskies were well worth watching.

        “We got blasted on national TV (against UC),” Xavier freshman Keith Jackson said Saturday. “But today we showed everybody what we had. I think some people will be impressed.”

        Six weeks after their 75-55 stinker against the Bearcats, Thad Matta's Muskies have battened down their defense and discovered scoring alternatives to David West. If their place in the NCAA Tournament is not yet assured, the doubt diminishes by the day.

Not just West

               When West left a tied game with two fouls Saturday, XU responded to his absence with a 12-4 tear during the last six minutes of the first half. What once appeared to be a one-man show is now increasingly an ensemble production.

        West has led the Muskies in scoring only once over the last nine games. Matta has been able to bring balance to a team that had been dangerously lopsided. That's how you win in March, when the defenses are designed to stop your star — by developing other means to attack the basket.

        “I think we have a better understanding of each other,” Matta said, when asked to describe the difference in his team since the UC game. “I think we've got a little more purpose to our game than we did at that particular time.”

        Saturday, that purpose was best personified by point guard Lionel Chalmers, whose slashing drives through Dayton's defense produced six layups and 19 points. Chalmers continues to wear Michael Jordan sneakers in Chicago Bulls colors, but he played like a wizard against the Flyers.

        “I thought Lionel was very hot,” Matta said. “Not just scoring, but I thought he controlled the tempo of the game better than he had. Not only knowing his spot on the floor, he has got to understand the other guys' spots, too.”

        Romain Sato's best spot remains the perimeter. Dave Young is distinguishing himself by doing the dirty work underneath. Keith Jackson is contributing productive minutes off the bench. Kevin Frey is still prone to periodic disappearances — the senior forward had neither a field goal nor an offensive rebound in 26 minutes Saturday — but the Muskies are not as dependent on his points as they once were.

        They are a better team than they were against the Bearcats, and they continue to improve. The 75 points they scored Saturday were the most Dayton has allowed in 13 games.

        “I was totally embarrassed by the way I played and the way the team played against Cincinnati,” Keith Jackson said. “But if we keep playing like this, everybody's going to notice us.”

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       
       



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