Thursday, March 18, 2004

Uphill climb puts XU at peak

Team knew it couldn't relax after rocky start

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thad Matta's Musketeers won four games in four days to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament and an automatic NCAA bid.
The Cincinnati Enquirer file/CRAIG RUTTLE

ORLANDO, Fla. - Xavier coach Thad Matta and associate head coach Sean Miller knew in September that Xavier might struggle early this season.

They were in Matta's office, looking at the first month of the Atlantic 10 schedule, when Miller mentioned that Xavier would just need to get through a challenging January with several tough road games to have a chance at a conference championship.

That almost didn't happen. A weary Xavier team finished January in last place in the Atlantic 10 West, on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

"It was difficult," Miller said. "I'll never forget losing at Duquesne and bussing back and having to play Saint Joseph's less than 48 hours later. Emotionally, that was a heck of a challenge."

Matta and his staff continued to foster a sense of unity, however, and demanded stricter defensive standards that transformed Xavier's season into a rousing success. The Musketeers (23-10) won the Atlantic 10 championship Saturday and earned the No. 7 seed in the Atlanta region of the NCAA Tournament. Xavier plays No. 10 seed Louisville (20-9) at approximately 9:50 p.m. Friday in Orlando, Fla.

After a Jan. 31 loss at Dayton dropped Xavier to 2-5 in the league and 10-9 overall, few people besides the coaches, players and athletic administrators could have envisioned such a turnaround. It wasn't uncommon to hear booing at Cintas Center or see the occasional season-ticket holder verbally lash into players and coaches as they walked off the court after the January losses.

"We all had a rule: If you listen to that, it steals your confidence as a coach and player," Miller said. "That was one of our first times that we faced losing. Thad has a great way about him. He does not panic easily."

Matta, 36, made subtle changes that helped Xavier win 13 of its 14 games entering Friday's. He moved freshman swingman Justin Cage into the starting lineup for defensive purposes and instituted a focused philosophy on having more productive practices with fewer mistakes.

The next game out after its January slump, Xavier defeated arch-rival Cincinnati Feb. 3. Last week, the Musketeers won four games in four days, including one against then-No. 1 Saint Joseph's, to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

"Since Feb. 1, we haven't had a day that we could say, 'Let's let our guard down,' " said Matta who has 99 career wins in four seasons, three of them at Xavier. "Really, we just kept going. I'd like to say we changed our offense or changed defensively, but we just kept coaching. One thing I don't think any of us did was ever panic. This is a long, long season."

That's what Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski reinforced to Matta during December and January, when Xavier's lofty preseason goals were lost in the disappointment of what looked like a very average season.

"We talked a lot because frustration was bouncing off the walls in this building," Bobinski said. "We had frustrated players, frustrated coaches. I would continually remind him, 'Thad, stay with what you're doing. You've got to stick with what you know works and ultimately hope it becomes clear to our guys.' That's exactly what they did."


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