By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
From the indoor balcony adjacent to his fourth-floor office, coach Thad Matta can look over the Cintas Center court, where David West carried out a magnificent senior season and left Xavier as the most decorated player in the program's history.
What Matta can't see is West's No. 30 jersey that Xavier retired last season and now hangs on the same side of the wall as Matta's balcony. But Matta needs no reminders of how West's play earned the forward national player of the year awards last season and made Xavier a fixture in the Top 25.
West is now with the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, and Xavier is left to build upon what he left behind. The cast, led by All-America candidate Romain Sato, is assembled, but questions remain before practice begins Saturday.
How does Xavier replace West?
The Musketeers have to play to their strength this season, which is clearly in the backcourt, where three starters return.
The Musketeers were second in the Atlantic 10 last season with a 77.6-point scoring average. But this team has to score with a different style: more points off turnovers, more long-range attempts and more movement on offense. There will be less pounding the ball inside and fewer second-chance opportunities, which puts a premium on execution and open shots.
XU AT A GLANCE
Coach: Thad Matta (52-12, third year; 76-20, fourth overall)
2002-03 record: 26-6, won A-10 West regular season with 15-1 record. Lost to Maryland in second round of NCAA tourney.
Lost: David West.
Gained: Justin Cage, Justin Doellman, Boubacar Coly, Robert Barker.
Projected starters: Dedrick Finn (PG), Lionel Chalmers (SG), Romain Sato (SF), Will Caudle (PF), Anthony Myles (C).
Exhibition games: Nov. 1, vs. EA Sports All-Stars; Nov. 9, vs. Upstate Basketball All-Stars.
Regular-season opener: Nov. 15, vs. Coppin State (BCA Classic).
Tickets: Ticketmaster, 562-4949.
That is where experience comes into play, with senior Lionel Chalmers and sophomore Dedrick Finn both adept at scoring and setting up teammates, specifically Sato, a multi-skilled swing guard.
Sato scored more than 30 points three times last season and put up 29 in another game. He hit a school-record nine 3-pointers in one game and made 14 of 27 3-pointers in a two-game stretch last season. He's also Xavier's top returning rebounder.
What will the frontcourt look like?
Xavier coaches were pleasantly surprised last season with Anthony Myles, who started all but one game and played as the perfect complement to West in the post. This season, Myles, a senior, will be tested more without West to attract attention. He has shown the ability to score and grab offensive rebounds when given the opportunity. Now, he'll be relied upon to establish XU's inside presence, which includes hitting the defensive boards.
Sophomore Will Caudle begins his third season under Matta's system and should be more comfortable down low, as should sophomore Angelo Smith, who played as West's backup last season. The Musketeers also will get contributions from redshirt freshman Brandon Cole and true freshman Boubacar Coly.
How will the backcourt rotation work?
Chalmers and Finn will start, and will, in effect, share point guard duties. "Dedrick and Lionel are both capable of running the team," Matta said. "And that's a good thing to have."
Xavier is deep at guard, a welcome change from last season, when injuries and departures made walk-on Keenan Christiansen the first guard off the bench in January. This season, Chalmers, Finn and Sato will control the perimeter, and the versatile Keith Jackson will give important minutes off the bench at any one of four positions.
Chalmers is quick but must avoid trying to do too much, an occasional problem last season.
What does XU have to do to get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament?
Sato can't be expected to carry this team and turn in a double-double every night. That doesn't work in the regular season, much less the postseason. The Musketeers also can't rely too heavily on the guards and become a "run-and-gun" team. It won't happen overnight, but Xavier players have to develop enough trust to rely on each other to make plays.
"With this team, it has to be a team in its truest sense," Matta said. "The great thing about West is he did things that could help the team. Romain has shown he can do that as well."
The Musketeers must find an inside-outside balance that can transform Xavier from a good team to a dangerous team.
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