By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
KINGSTON, R.I. - After stumbling at the start of the season, Xavier has played more like the two-time defending Atlantic 10 West Division regular-season champion in recent games. The Musketeers have won three straight by an average of 18.3 points.
That is the momentum the Musketeers (8-4) need as they begin defense of their conference title at noon today at Rhode Island.
The Rams are 12-3 (1-0 A-10) and surprisingly have become one of the A-10's contenders. A win against the defending champion would establish URI as a legitimate force in the East Division.
"We've got a big target on our back," Xavier sophomore point guard Dedrick Finn said. "We're going to try to three-peat. But we've got to go in and play our game, the way we've been playing."
Xavier has been impressive lately, winning three home games with a strict defense and efficient offense. Now, Xavier will be challenged to do that on the road, where the Musketeers are 1-4.
Rhode Island is 8-1 at home in the 2-year-old Ryan Center, with notable wins against Providence and Charlotte.
The new arena and players such as junior guard Dawan Robinson and senior swingman Brian Woodward have infused some excitement back into Rhode Island's team, which finished 20-11 last season. Before that, the Rams endured three straight seasons of eight or fewer wins.
This season's start is the best since the 1997-98 team began 12-3 and went to the NCAA Tournament regional finals.
"Two years ago we won eight games, so everything we do is significant," said third-year Rhode Island coach Jim Baron. "It's a little bit quicker than I anticipated, because there's so much inexperience on this team.
"But we've been fortunate to win a lot of close games, and we're doing a better job of sharing the ball."
The team's veteran guards, Robinson, Woodward and junior Dustin Hellenga, have compensated for an overall young team by doing most of the scoring. Robinson averages 17.4 points, while Woodward (14.7) and Hellenga (12.3) are the other two double-figures scorers.
Since defeating Alabama Jan. 3 at Cintas Center, Xavier has had eight days to prepare for Rhode Island, a team that averages 41.1 rebounds a game and has reached the 22nd spot in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to CollegeRPI.com
"It's given us time to change some things for us," Xavier coach Thad Matta said, "as well as spend ample time on Rhode Island and not be rushed with them."
There isn't much Xavier needs to change as long as the Musketeers play as well on the road as they have at home. Since freshman Justin Doellman moved into the starting lineup Dec. 28, Xavier has used a guard-oriented game plan that has freed center Anthony Mylesin the post. The result has created a more balanced offense opponents have struggled to stop.
"Once we take the effort that we have at home on the road, I think we'll be a good team," Myles said. "Everybody is looking at us as if it's easy to knock us off right now.
"But we have to defend our championship, and we're going to continue doing that."
Xavier at Rhode Island
Tipoff: Noon today, Ryan Center (7,571), Kingston, R.I.
Records: Xavier 8-4 (0-0 Atlantic 10), Rhode Island 12-3 (1-0).
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
TV: Fox Sports Net Ohio.
Series: Xavier leads 9-2.
Line: Rhode Island by 3.
Coach: Thad Matta (60-16, third season; 84-24 overall).
Coach: Jim Baron (40-34, third season; 246-236 overall).
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