Sunday, March 17, 2002

XU must win bulge battle to beat OU

Muskies expect physical contest

By Neil Schmidt,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DALLAS — Twelve years ago, Xavier played here in the Sweet 16. It's a peak to which the program hasn't returned.

        The current Musketeers, playing second-seeded Oklahoma today for a Sweet 16 berth, haven't talked about their chance to match XU's most magical season. Every current Musketeer was 13 or younger in 1990, so to them it's ancient history.

        Everyone speaking Saturday simply cited a short-sighted scenario.

        “We want to keep playing,” junior center David West said. “It's like the playground: If you lose, you get off the court; you're done. If you win, you stay on.

        “We're not looking at (making) history. We're looking at tomorrow.”

        What's hard to ignore, though, is that this is the highest-profile game against a high-ranking opponent since XU nearly pulled off an upset of top-ranked Indiana in the second round of the 1993 NCAAs.

        Oklahoma (28-4) is ranked No.3 and could have a size- able share of the American Airlines Center crowd today. But the seventh-seeded Musketeers (26-5) may benefit from an underdog role they haven't occupied nearly all season.

        “The nervousness should be out of us now,” XU coach Thad Matta said. “They're the No.2 seed; we're No.7. There's not a lot of pressure on us.”

        The winner today advances to meet third-seeded Arizona (24-9) in a regional semifinal Thursday in San Jose, Calif. Should that be XU, there will be more requests for respect.

        “We win this, and people will really start looking at Xavier,” XU junior swingman Dave Young said.

        The Sooners insist XU isn't going unsung.

        “They may not be on TV as much as we are,” OU guard Hollis Price said. “But we know about them.”

        These teams have adjusted their styles in recent seasons, but each has come this far largely on the strength of its defense.

        XU's 39.8 defensive field goal percentage is its lowest in 45 seasons. Its defensive scoring average of 62.1 points is its lowest in 52 years.

        The Sooners lead the Big 12 in defensive field goal percentage (40.2) and turnover margin (plus-4.0) and rank second in rebounding margin (plus-6.5) and scoring defense (64.0 ppg).

        “Looking at Xavier, it's like playing your brother,” OU coach Kelvin Sampson said.

        The key would seem to be how XU responds to the Sooners' physical style. XU lost three games this season to teams with bruising styles: Cincinnati, Temple and Purdue.

        Kansas' All-American forward, Drew Gooden, has accused OU of playing dirty. The Sooners don't care. As backup center Jozsef Szendrei has said, “I'd rather be called dirty than soft.”

        “They're tenacious,” West said. “Every time they get an offensive rebound, block a shot, get a dunk, they go crazy. They feed off those things.”

        “(For XU), sometimes it's good when you try to establish the way you're going to play, if you come out and land a good blow.”

        West's chief competitor under the basket will be Aaron McGhee, who averages 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. McGhee played his freshman season at Cincinnati, and the two squared off some in summer-league play.

        “He has improved remarkably from what I remember,” West said of McGhee.

        OU has won nine straight games, but it has shot just 38 percent over its previous four games.

        “Both teams are great defensively,” West said. “If Oklahoma is able to impose its will on us, they'll have a great shot. If we're able to impose our will on them, we could win. The toughest team will win.”

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