By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Xavier women's basketball team will see the type of club that coach Kevin McGuff hopes to build on its Evanston campus.
UC Santa Barbara, the Musketeers' opponent today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is a tough, physical group.
The Gauchos come in limiting the opposition to 35 percent shooting from the field, out-rebounding them by seven a game, and outscoring them by almost 18 points. UCSB has won seven consecutive Big West Tournament titles.
Not that McGuff is complaining about his first season at Xavier.
The Musketeers enter tonight's game 20-9. Coming off a 12-19 season, XU improved its winning percentage by .307, the largest jump under any of the 55 new Division I coaches. Its RPI is No. 37.
With two freshmen and a sophomore starting, McGuff has rebuilt the Xavier program faster than most people - including himself - might have expected.
"The kids were hungry from the start." McGuff said. "They didn't enjoy last year. They didn't enjoy the losing thing. They were ready to go. They have been great."
The positive attitude started with the coach.
"He knew we had the talent to be a 20-win team, and he kept telling us that," said freshman post player Tara Boothe, who had signed to play for former coach Melanie Balcomb. "We started to believe him."
Balcomb, after seven seasons and 135 victories, left for Vanderbilt. McGuff was hired June 13.
It was too late to make major changes. McGuff had to coach the team he was given.
McGuff, in his first season as a head coach after six years as a Notre Dame assistant, gradually incorporated his philosophy into a team that already had a run-and-gun offensive identity.
While maintaining a 68.2-point-per-game scoring average from last season, the Musketeers under McGuff gave up 9.3 fewer points a game. The rebounding differential went from a minus-3 to a plus-2.
"As we go, I want us to be known as a great team defensively, great on the boards and (a team that) wins with toughness," McGuff said. "It's going to take some time to develop that and get us where we need to be, but I think we came a long way in those areas. We are a much tougher team physically and mentally than we were when we started."
McGuff built his strategy around senior guards Amy Waugh and Reetta Piipari. This NCAA Tournament appearance is their third in four seasons.
They have combined for 2,862, 1,169 assists and 501 3-pointers (40.5 percent from behind the arc).
"We're strong in some areas, we're really strong in the backcourt, so we do a lot with them," McGuff said. "We do get some matchup problems with our post players, so we try to exploit that. I tried to find out how we could exploit other teams by playing to our strengths.
"Hopefully, it can carry us a few more games in the tournament."
Xavier vs. UC Santa Barbara
Tipoff: About 9:30 p.m. today, United Spirit Arena (15,050), Lubbock, Texas.
Record: XU 20-9, Santa Barbara 26-4.
Series: First meeting.
Coach: Kevin McGuff (20-9, first season; same overall).
UC SANTA BARBARA
Coach: Mark French (330-147, 16th season; 428-261, 24th
Full coverage at Cincinnati.com
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