Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Xavier playing up to preseason expectations

By Joe Kay
The Associated Press

David West scores 47 points in one game by taking the ball inside, and Romain Sato scores 34 the next time out by shooting from far away.

As March draws closer, Xavier is coming together.

The 18th-ranked Musketeers got another big game from a starter - this time, it was Sato hitting long-range jumpers - as they beat Rhode Island 93-70 on Saturday for their ninth consecutive win.

After two months of turmoil, Xavier (18-4, 9-1 Atlantic 10) is playing like the team that everyone expected.

"We're growing closer, trusting each other," said West, a preseason All-America. "Early in the season, we were trying to feel each other out."

Xavier was No. 10 in the preseason poll, a lofty ranking that hinged upon West, Sato and senior point guard Lionel Chalmers leading a cast of newcomers.

Sato slumped early, Chalmers broke his right foot on Dec. 31, and West severely bruised the index finger on his shooting hand. The setbacks took a toll and knocked Xavier out of the Top 25.

Sato has regained his shot, Chalmers is back in the lineup, and West is turning into the dominating power forward that everyone expected. Xavier put it all together against Rhode Island (15-7, 7-4), which shot only 32.5 percent from the field and never figured out how to handle West and Sato.

"They're a very hot team right now," coach Jim Baron said. "Sato is as good as anyone in the country."

West put on one of the most dominating performance in Atlantic 10 history. He scored 47 points and had 18 rebounds a week ago against Dayton, which made the mistake of assuming it could play him man-to-man.

Rhode Island has no delusions. The Rams double-teamed West early, then went to a zone to take away the inside. That left Sato open on the perimeter, where he set a school record with nine 3-pointers and tied his career high with 34 points.

Sato was 11-of-20 from the field overall, including 9-of-16 from behind the arc, and had nine rebounds and five assists. He complemented West, who had 26 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and four blocks.

"Offensively, we're way ahead of schedule," said West, who is averaging 20.4 points and 12.6 rebounds.

Xavier had 28 assists - 11 by freshman point guard Dedrick Finn, who took over after Chalmers made his first start since the injury, then quickly got into foul trouble.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a freshman who had that kind of performance," Xavier coach Thad Matta said.

"As with all freshmen, sometimes you have to get burned to learn. He's had a few games like that, but he's gotten a lot better."

When Chalmers got hurt, the Musketeers initially floundered. Their determination to pull together and pull through has turned them into a formidable team.

Matta gives a lot of the credit to West, who passed up the NBA to return for his senior season and a shot at a long run in the NCAA tournament.

For the first time all season, Xavier looks like it's capable of pulling it off.

"Teams take time to develop," Matta said. "I get the feeling that they are coming together as a unit.

"Credit David a lot for his leadership. I think he's saying, 'There's six (regular season) games left, and it's almost over for me.' He's having fun."

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