Thursday, March 14, 2002

Xavier's West set for wild ride

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The pundits keep telling Xavier's coaches that the Musketeers have a Ferrari in their garage and this is the time to rev the engines. But David West observes the speed limit. He gets his points, though always within the team concept. He earns his All-American honors, yet plays so unselfishly that he didn't lead his team in scoring during conference play.

        “My dad's friend said I'm like an old Cadillac: It might get beat up and worn down over the years, but it gives you a smooth, steady ride,” West said. “My thing is just staying steady — stay in there, keep plugging away.”

        When the NCAA Tournament is over, it will be time for West to decide whether to return for his senior season.

        This, though, is the week to wonder. Can West take his game up a notch and take XU on his back? Can one man's dominant play carry this team deep into the tournament?

        Plenty of folks would like to see him try:

        • “You need your best players to take over in the tournament, and that's David,” said broadcaster Tim McCormick, who has done XU games on ESPN and Fox Sports.

        • “I still think he can improve his mind-set of being one that's just going to dominate the game,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He's got those kind of skills.”

        • “He's the best big man in the country, as far as I'm concerned,” XU radio analyst and former player Steve Wolf said. “I think sometimes he forgets he's that darn good. He can take over a game at anytime.”

        And yet, XU has won 25 games without West going wild. His averages this season (18.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, .541 shooting) are almost identical to last season (17.8, 10.9, .551). In his two highest-scoring games, 31-point efforts at Purdue and La Salle, he did most of his damage early rather than in late flurries.

        Clearly, team basketball has worked.

        “As far as taking the team on his back, I'd just say he's doing whatever it takes to win,” XU coach Thad Matta said. “His basketball IQ is so high, he knows what the team needs at any given time.”

        As much as Wolf said he'd love to see West score 30 or 40 points, he agrees with Matta that it may not be the best recipe for victories this weekend.

        “Yes, David West can carry this team,” Wolf said. “But in the team concept, this coaching staff has set up, it is more likely for David to do his job if the team functions as one unit.”

        There are times, to be sure, when West wins a game with a decisive flurry. The victory at Creighton, when he scored 11 of XU's 13 points in its game-winning run, was a model. So was the Atlantic 10 Tournament game against Massachusetts, when he scored six points in regulation, but then eight big points in overtime.

        “It depends how I feel, I guess,” West said. “If I'm in a groove, or if the team's struggling a bit, I feel like I have to do anything I can to help this team win basketball games.”

        Last season, on the worst-shooting XU team in 36 seasons, West was often the only reliable offensive option. When teams clamped down on him last March, no one was hitting jump shots to spread the defense, and West simply couldn't get the ball.

        This season has been different. Romain Sato (15.6 ppg) has developed a well-rounded game to complement West, and XU has made 35.8 percent of its 3-pointers — second-best in the A-10.

        “Now if teams focus on me, they're going to get burned,” West said.

        Hawaii would seem a favorable matchup for him Friday. The Rainbow Warriors have a minus-1.2 average rebounding margin. They haven't faced such a top-flight center. The closest was Fresno State's Melvin Ely, who totaled 25 points (11-of-13 shooting) and 12 rebounds in an 82-79 UH victory.

        “In a situation where they're going to be playing someone that may have never even watched him play, I think it's very difficult to devise a game plan just based on film, because he creates a lot of difficult matchup problems,” McCormick said.

        West has been projected as a first-round NBA draft pick if he leaves after this season, and making a big splash in the tournament would seemingly raise his profile a bit more. But don't assume his becoming a bigger star would make him more likely to leave. It might work in reverse.

        “From a personal standpoint, if we win two, three games in the NCAA Tournament ... heck, well, we can make a run at the damn national championship (next season), you know what I'm saying?” he said. “Heck, that would be something else. Basically, we'd have every starter coming back, except for Kevin (Frey).

        “If we were able to go on a little run like that, that would be incredible. That would be something you'd never forget.”


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