BY MICHAEL PERRY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Xavier won its past two basketball games by 30 and 45 points, respectively.
It's not as simple as to say the insertion of Obi Harris into the starting lineup has turned around the 7-4 Musketeers, but the 6-foot-10 junior has certainly helped.
Harris has averaged 23.5 minutes the past two games and provided Xavier with almost exactly what it hoped for when it signed him out of Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College.
He is 6-of-9 from the field as a starter with 17 points, three rebounds and six blocked shots. Harris also scored XU's first basket in both games.
"I love it," he said. "I love being out on the court for an extended amount of time. I just love playing the game.
"It just feels great being able to contribute. I'm really starting to get more comfortable with my situation, and it's looking more and more promising every day."
When practices began in October, Harris was likely the leading candidate to start at center.
But when he broke his right index finger Nov. 1, sophomore Reggie Butler -- who had emerged as a contender for the job after the first few weeks of practice -- became the starter for two exhibitions and the first six games of the season.
The 6-10 Butler was replaced by 6-8 freshman Kevin Frey on Dec. 2 when Xavier played Miami. It was largely because Butler was not as effective defensively as coach Skip Prosser needed him to be. Butler totaled only 20 minutes in three games in Puerto Rico -- his last games as a starter.
With Frey and slender 6-8 James Posey on the frontline, the Musketeers lacked size. Harris got his cast off Nov. 19, but was not able to practice all out for another couple weeks. He totaled nine minutes against Purdue and Toledo.
After two starts, the bottom line is this: Harris needs to grab a few more rebounds (he had none against Loyola Marymount) and make his free throws (he's 6-of-13 for the season). But he has been a definite defensive disruption for opponents.
"We're trying to teach him to block the ball inbounds so we can get going on the break," Prosser said. "Never having been 6-10, it's easier for me to say that than to actually make it happen.
"I think he's only going to get better. He wants to get better. He works very hard to get better. As he improves, I think our field-goal percentage defense will get better."
Canisius shot only 32.3 percent from the field against the Musketeers. Loyola Marymount shot 33.3 percent.
Xavier opponents for the season are shooting 42.5 percent. Harris is going to be needed even more with the departure of 6-8 junior Desmond Walker, who left the team last Sunday, and with the Atlantic 10 Conference season looming after Monday night's game at St. Mary's.
His emergence also has allowed Posey to play more at small forward, where he is most effective, and freshman Lloyd Price to come off the bench to give the Musketeers a boost.
"Each guy on the team has a role, and no guy's role is more important than the other," Harris said.
Prosser was asked whether Harris' presence allowed Xavier to be more aggressive defensively.
"It's not something we talk about, like you can be less judicious in terms of going for steals because we have Obi back there," Prosser said. "That may come, but we're not at that point yet."
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