By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Embarrassment filled the Xavier locker room Jan. 28 at George Washington after the Colonials ran the Musketeers off the Smith Center court in a 21-point loss. It was Xavier's fourth setback in five games and left the team at 10-8.
Senior Lionel Chalmers scanned the locker room after that loss and suddenly realized something had to be done.
"I went off," Chalmers said. "I yelled, I screamed. I did everything. Guys listened. I wanted to make a point that we don't lose."
Xavier lost its next game to Dayton, but has won 13 of its last 14 to earn the No. 7 seed in the Atlanta region of the NCAA Tournament. The Musketeers (23-10) play Louisville in the first round Friday night with markedly clearer leadership, which has developed since Chalmers' outburst.
"My initial thought was, 'It's about time,' " Xavier coach Thad Matta said of Chalmers taking charge.
"That was something we were pointing for, a sense of leadership, a sense of urgency from these guys. We were staring at the fact that we were not a good basketball team."
That is partly because Xavier's three seniors, Chalmers, Romain Sato and Anthony Myles, spent the first two months of the season playing without a significant sense of team unity.
Would-be wins turned into losses because Xavier did not know whom to turn to in the clutch, and did not have the collective mental fortitude to finish off close games. Ironically, it was a 21-point loss that helped change the season.
"We've been a lot closer since then," Myles said. "Having us separated like that and not knowing who was who and not trusting each other - that played a big part. We didn't, at the time, have leadership.
"We all were looking at Sato, but we knew Lionel was the key to controlling this team. Just listening to him, we felt like we let him down. He was pretty upset."
Now, Chalmers heads into the NCAA Tournament coming off one of the best weeks of his career at Xavier. He led the Musketeers to the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship last week, earning the Most Outstanding Player award and improving his scoring average to 16.0 points per game.
Sato leads the team with 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds, and Myles is third with 10.4 points. The three seniors, who at one point in the season were frustrated with each other, have become the team's backbone.
"It's hard enough to get two guys to try to lead," Chalmers said. "To have three is very difficult. Each game, I think we get even closer."
A positive example set by a couple of freshmen might have helped the seniors in that regard. Justin Doellman and Justin Cage, both starters, have stepped into prominent roles in their first season without pursuing personal agendas.
Rather than worrying about their scoring average or shooting percentage, Doellman and Cage have just been effective team players, a concept the three seniors are now putting to good use.
"The seniors have done a good job of assuming a leadership role," Matta said. "It took longer than I wanted, but they've done a nice job of bringing those (freshmen) along. Could it be reciprocal? Maybe they did learn something from those guys, because the freshmen play with complete selflessness and do whatever this team needs to do to win."
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