- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Beware the team in the NCAA tournament that’s totally unique, that poses problems no one else does. The Xavier Musketeers, for instance.

The X-Men have so many guys who can score — six of them averaged in double figures this season, the most in major college hoops — that it’s hard to tilt your defense toward any one player. And at the end of games, boy, can they shoot foul shots. You run your finger down their stat sheet, and you see free throw percentages of .857, .852, .857 again and .849. It’s quite the collection of deadeyes coach Sean Miller has.

Georgia found this out the hard way in the first round of the NCAAs yesterday at Verizon Center. The Bulldogs, out-of-nowhere winners of the SEC tourney, had karma in their corner, but Xavier had Josh Duncan, Derrick Brown, Drew Lavender, C.J. Anderson, B.J. Raymond and Stanley Burrell — a cast of thousands it seemed. And so the Musketeers, seeded third in the West region, refused to blink when faced with a 13-point deficit early in the second half and pulled away to a 73-61 victory.

“Georgia played an excellent first half,” Miller said afterward, “and we played an equally bad first half. It’s very rare that you can flip it like we did.”

But then, Xavier, as previously stated, is a rare team. It doesn’t overwhelm you with talent, necessarily; it outpoints you with balance and fundamentals and lots of tournament experience (seven trips to the Big Dance in the last eight years). Some of that experience has been swell, such as when the X-Men went to the Elite Eight under Thad Matta in 2004, and some of it has been instructive, such as when they suffered a bitter overtime loss to eventual finalist Ohio State last March in the second round.

“It created an extra hunger in us” is how Duncan, the top scorer against Georgia with 20 points, put it.

Xavier has turned that craving into a 28-6 record, an Atlantic 10 regular-season title and a No. 12 ranking. And now, as the X-Men prepare to meet Purdue in Round 2, they want to turn it into more. They just might, too, if they continue to play the kind of defense that choked the life out of the Bulldogs in the second half.

Of course, had it been a different officiating crew, the Musketeers might not have gotten away with all their physicality. Indeed, the Dawgs might have paraded to the foul line in the last 16 minutes just as Xavier did.

“If you make contact with [your opponent], it’s gotta be with your chest,” Burrell said. “That’s what I kept telling the guys: ‘Try to show [the referees] your hands at all times’ [so they don’t call you for holding or reaching in]. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that.”

This much is certain: The X-Men aren’t going to beat themselves. During one stretch yesterday, they made 25 of 26 free throws. They also committed only seven turnovers. You an win a c lot of games putting up numbers like that.

Then there’s the unusual inside-outside ability of their big men, the 6-foot-9 Duncan and the 6-8 Brown. They’re just as big a threat to pop out and shoot the 3 as they are to take the ball to the basket. As Miller said, “our style of play” gave Georgia a lot of trouble, forced the Bulldogs into all those fouls — and, for a time, out of their man-to-man defense and into a zone.

“Their big guys [6-10 towers Dave Bliss and Albert Jackson and 6-8 bruiser Jeremy Price] had to guard forwards. When you look at Derrick Brown and Josh Duncan, their ability to attack the basket, C.J. Anderson’s ability to attack the basket, that was our advantage. That’s one of the reasons they went [to a] 1-3-1 as much as they did in the second half — to get away from fouling us.”

As much as anything, though, it’s the Musketeers’ unselfishness, their lack of ego, that bowls you over. It’s the only way, really, you can have six players scoring from 10.0 (Burrell) to 11.7 (Duncan). There’s no Designated Shooter (or Shooters) on this team, just a bunch of teammates working the ball around, looking for a good shot.

“That’s the thing we emphasize most,” said Brown. “No one cares who scores. We just care about winning.”

If you care about the game, care about it being played the Right Way, this Xavier team is lovely to watch. And this year there’s no Ohio State in the X-Men’s bracket, no club with an aircraft carrier like Greg Oden and gunners like Mike Conley, Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler.

But enough already about the Game That Got Away. After all, Miller said, “When they throw the ball up [tomorrow], there’s no one on our team thinking about Greg Oden.” No, the Musketeers will be thoroughly preoccupied with Purdue — as anybody with Final Four potential would.

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