I spent a day last week on the Xavier campus watching practice, talking to players, trying to find anybody who would relive that memorable loss to Ohio State in the second round of last March's NCAA Tournament.
|Drew Lavender's return gives the Musketeers a solid backcourt. (US Presswire)|
"I never watched it," he said. "I've seen the last play, but I've never watched the game."
Next, I asked Stanley Burrell the same thing.
"I didn't watch that game or the BYU game (in the first round of the NCAA Tournament)," he said. "I have watched every single game of my career except for those two."
Finally, I took the question to Sean Miller.
"I never watched it either," said the Xavier coach. "It's just one of those things where you have to move on. But I will tell you, there are millions of people who have talked to me about it."
You don't say?
Such is the case when you are on the wrong end of arguably the most memorable game of the NCAA Tournament, a game that altered the paths and perceptions of two programs while allowing Mike Conley to continue the march that turned him into the fourth pick in the subsequent NBA Draft. With three minutes remaining, Xavier winning and advancing to the Sweet 16 seemed as certain as a multiple-touchdown game from Tom Brady.
But then the following happened:
• OSU cut a 61-52 deficit to 61-59.
• Justin Cage made the first but missed the second of two free throws with 9.3 seconds remaining, leaving the score at 62-59.
• Conley rushed the ball up the court, then dumped it to Ron Lewis.
• Xavier, even with a three-point lead, opted not to foul.
• Lewis sank a 3-pointer and forced overtime.
• Conley scored 11 points in overtime to clinch the 78-71 win.
"It was a bad experience," Burrell said. "Bad memories."
There's no denying that, which is why I don't blame the folks at Xavier for being irritated when the subject is broached. But in talking to an array of people last week, what I learned was that it isn't that collapse that bothers them most, but how that collapse seems to define their program for the average fan.
Ask the average fan about Xavier, they'll talk about that loss to OSU.
Ask the average fan about Miller, they'll talk about how he didn't foul Lewis.
But what the average fan doesn't realize is that Xavier basketball was on the national scene long before its nationally televised gaffe. Here are a few facts to prove it:
• Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament seven of the past 10 years and 17 of the past 25 years.
• Xavier has won at least 20 games nine times in the past 10 years and 20 times in the past 25 years.
• Xavier has won 71.0 percent of its games the past 10 years and 70.8 percent of its games the past 25 years.
"It's remarkable," Miller said. "When you look at our company, at programs that can say the same thing, you're talking about the best of the best. So when people define Xavier by that single moment (from last season's NCAA Tournament) they are really missing the point. There is a long history here, from way before I was here."
Armed with that information is there any way not to expect Xavier to do well? I don't think so. So naturally, the Musketeers are on top of their league as I continue the countdown of the Top 13 conferences in the nation with No. 8 ... the Atlantic 10.
The good: Lavender and Burrell give the Musketeers the best backcourt in the A-10, one of the best in the nation. They'll be joined on the wing by C.J. Anderson, a 6-foot-5 transfer who averaged 18.8 points and 9.4 rebounds two seasons ago at Manhattan.
The bad: Both Justins are gone -- Cage and Doellman -- from the starting lineup, leaving a gaping hole inside. That's 24.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game that'll be missing.
The bottom line: The addition of Anderson could prove big after the natural period of adjustment, and it's never bad to have a pair of seniors in the backcourt. That's why Xavier is the easy pick to win the league, and that Sweet 16 that escaped the Musketeers last season might be attained come March.
The good: Four of the top five scorers are back, including Ahmad Nivins, Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson. That trio brings 41.8 points and 20.0 rebounds to the table and comprises the best frontcourt in the A-10.
The bad: Jawan Carter, who started 26 games last season, has transferred to Delaware, and D.J. Rivera is sitting out the first semester because of academics. Consequently, the Hawks are down a pair of guards who averaged 25.7 and 23.1 minutes in 2006-07.
The bottom line: Saint Joseph's missed the postseason for the first time in six years last season. But with a reliable frontcourt -- and any help from Iowa State transfer Tasheed Carr -- the Hawks will make the NCAA Tournament, proving last season was an aberration.
3. Rhode Island
The good: The top five scorers from a team that won 19 games return. The leader is Will Daniels, a 6-8 forward who averaged 17.4 points per game as a junior. Outside the arc is where Jimmy Baron lurks, making 47.8 of his 3-point attempts.
The bad: The Rams had more turnovers (487) than assists (449) last season. Unless that changes there's a ceiling on how far they can go.
The bottom line: Rhode Island was a win over George Washington from making the NCAA Tournament after finishing 10-6 in the league. There's no reason to think the Rams won't improve on that record this season, the NIT being the most likely destination.
|2. Saint Joseph's||NCAA|
|3. Rhode Island||NIT|
|6. Saint Louis||none|
|7. George Washington||none|
|13. La Salle||none|
|14. St. Bonaventure||none|
The good: Brian Roberts is on pace to finish his career among the top five scorers in Dayton history. The senior guard should average something close to the 18.5 points per game he did last season, and on the wing he'll have the help of Chris Wright. A 6-7 freshman, Wright is one of the most heralded recruits in Dayton history. He's a consensus Top 100 prospect from the Class of 2007, one whom Scout.com ranks as the 10th-best small forward entering college.
The bad: Norman Plummer, the team's second-leading rebounder, transferred after the season. It's not a devastating loss. But it should be noted that Dayton only out-rebounded its opponents by less than one board in 2006-07, so any presence in the paint missing is a presence that will be missed.
The bottom line: The Flyers started well last season before going 9-11 in their final 20 games to finish 19-12 overall. A January loss to Duquesne kept them from hitting the 20-win mark and from possibly making the NIT. But with four starters back, Dayton should be better and a postseason berth of some sort should be achieved.
The good: All five starters are back from a team that won 18 games and finished 10-6 in the A-10. The best of the bunch is Bryant Dunston, a 6-8 forward who has 1,382 career points heading into his senior year, ranking eighth on the school's all-time scoring list.
The bad: The Rams ranked 11th in the Atlantic 10 in free-throw shooting, making just 67 percent of their attempts. That statistic has to improve if the goal is to win a league title.
The bottom line: What Dereck Whittenburg has been able to accomplish at Fordham is pretty remarkable. Last season brought the school's first winning record since 1991-92, and he should improve on that this season, after which the bigger schools looking for a new coach will almost certainly be calling.
6. Saint Louis
|Rick Majerus should bring a renaissance of sorts to Saint Louis. (Getty Images)|
The bad: The loss of Ian Vouyoukas in the middle will be tough to ignore. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds last season, and there isn't an accomplished option to fill the void.
The bottom line: Majerus has won 422 career games while never enduring a losing season. That's proof that he's one of the gifted technicians in the sport and reason enough to believe he'll maximize this roster and then get the Billikens in position to compete for A-10 titles as soon as his recruits start enrolling and that new on-campus arena is completed.
The good: Maureece Rice made a smart move when he withdrew from the NBA Draft. It was huge news for George Washington, which can now count on the guard's 15.8 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
The bad: The Colonials ranked eighth in rebounding margin last season, and now they are without three of their top four rebounders. Rob Diggs is the lone returning frontcourt player who averaged at least 16 minutes per game.
The bottom line: GW signed Karl Hobbs to an extension this offseason, and that's a good move for the school considering it has been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That said, this should be a down season for George Washington given what the rest of the league is returning compared to what the Colonials are not. So a NIT berth should be the realistic goal, though expecting even that much might be too much now that Carl Elliott is gone.
The good: Phil Jones, rated as one of the top 15 prep centers in the nation two years ago, is finally eligible after not being cleared to play last season. He should be a starter, and some more new help will be available in December when Michael Gerrity becomes eligible after transferring from Pepperdine, where he scored 14.1 points per game during the 2005-06 season.
The bad: Once upon a time Michael Beasley was set to be a part of this team. But now he's at Kansas State, and that must drive Charlotte fans crazy.
The bottom line: Bobby Lutz's contract wasn't rolled over after last season, and he'll spend this season coaching well aware that another losing record could lead to his termination. That's a lot of pressure, and the timing is bad because Lutz finds himself depending on a slew of young players in a league where upperclassmen should dominate.
The good: Eight of the top nine scorers return, but it is three newcomers who provide hope for significant improvement. In transfers Kojo Mensah and Shawn James, the Dukes have a pair of projected starters who are both accomplished Division I performers. Mensah averaged 16.6 points two seasons ago at Siena while James averaged an astounding 6.5 blocks at Northeastern.
The bad: Mensah and James are two of the Duquesne players who were shot in September 2006. They are expected to be fine and available to start the season, but they missed a lot of practice that transfers typically enjoy while sitting out a year. So it's fair to wonder whether they'll be rusty or even close to what they might've been had that tragedy never occurred.
The bottom line: Duquesne only won 10 games last season in the aftermath of the shooting, but the Dukes will eclipse that number easily this season. In fact, if things go well they could double it.
The good: The top two returning scorers in the A-10 reside at Temple. Dionte Christmas and Mark Tyndale averaged a combined 39.4 points last season.
The bad: Temple was out-rebounded by more than four boards per game last season; its rebounding margin ranking 12th in the A-10. And now the Owls top rebounder (Dion Dacons) is gone, leaving no tangible reason to believe they will be better on the glass this season, and it doesn't help that freshman Michael Eric, a 6-10 center who averaged 19 points and 14 rebounds in high school, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
The bottom line: Life after John Chaney should continue to be difficult. The Owls had a losing season for the first time since 1982-1983 last season, and this season might be the second.
The good: Gary Forbes got some valuable experience this summer, averaging 17.8 points at the FIBA Americas Championship while representing Panama. His versatility is an asset, and the 6-7 wing should best the 13.0 points and 5.8 rebounds he averaged last season.
|G - Drew Lavender, Xavier|
|G - Brian Roberts, Dayton|
|G - Tommie Liddell, Saint Louis|
|F - Will Daniels, Rhode Island|
|F - Ahmad Nivins, Saint Joseph's|
|G - Maureece Rice, George Washington|
|G - Jimmy Baron, Rhode Island|
|G - Dionte Christmas, Temple|
|F - Bryant Dunston, Fordham|
|F - Shawn James, Duquesne|
| Player of the Year |
Drew Lavender, Xavier
| Newcomer of the Year |
Shawn James, Duquesne
| Breakthrough Player |
Darren Govens, Saint Joseph's
The bad: Rashaun Freeman, Stephane Lasme and James Life -- three guys who started all 33 games last season -- are gone. So too is any hope that UMass was on the verge of doing something special.
The bottom line: The NIT is supposed to be a stepping stone to the NCAA Tournament, but for UMass it was more of the end of the road. With a lack of experience (not to mention talent), this is set to be a down year for the Minutemen, and Travis Ford is basically starting again from scratch in his quest to return the school to the stature it enjoyed in the mid-1990s.
The good: A pair of sophomores -- Dan Geriot and David Gonzalvez -- are back after averaging 11.9 and 9.6 points per game. That gives Chris Mooney something to build around, and he needs it after last season's 8-22 campaign.
The bad: Richmond was out-rebounded in 26 of 30 games last season. Gonzalvez is the leading returning rebounder, and that can't be good considering he's a 6-4 guard.
The bottom line: The Spiders made 14 postseason appearances between 1982 and 2004. But they didn't come close to accomplishing anything of the sort last season, and they won't this season either.
13. La Salle
The good: The top six scorers return, four of whom were freshmen last season. The most notable is Rodney Green, a 6-5 local standout who averaged 12.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 2006-07.
The bad: Though the Explorers are technically experienced, those experienced players lost 20 games last season and are mostly still just sophomores.
The bottom line: La Salle is probably still too young to make an impact in this league. Granted, the Explorers won't lose 20 games again. But they won't win 20 either.
14. St. Bonaventure
The good: Anthony Solomon is gone after losing at least 19 games in all four seasons at the helm. He was booed off the court following last season's final home game, so not having a coach who loses to a large degree and gets booed at home is certainly a positive.
The bad: Tyler Relph averaged 9.8 points last season and was expected to be a starter. He's injured, however, and not practicing.
The bottom line: The problem with Solomon's firing is that it implies that's the way to fix things at St. Bonaventure. In reality, the Bonnies have never recovered from the academic scandal that led to the cancelled season in 2003, so new coach Mark Schmidt has the challenge of all challenges in front of him, and his first season should be a rough one.
|2007-08 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 15||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Thursday, Oct. 25||No. 7: Missouri Valley|
|Tuesday, Oct. 16||Preseason All-Amercia Team||Friday, Oct. 26||No. 6: Big 12|
|Wednesday, Oct. 17||No. 13: West Coast||Monday, Oct. 29||No. 5: Big Ten|
|Thursday, Oct. 18||No. 12: Colonial||Tuesday, Oct. 30||No. 4: SEC|
|Friday, Oct. 19||No. 11: Mountain West||Wednesday, Oct. 31||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 22||No. 10: Western Athletic||Thursday, Nov. 1||No. 2: Big East|
|Tuesday, Oct. 23||No. 9: Conference USA||Friday, Nov. 2||No. 1: Pac-10|
|Wednesday, Oct. 24||No. 8: Atlantic 10||Monday, Nov. 5||Preseason Projecting the Field|