Wednesday, October 20, 2004

New face in a vital place


XU hopes transfer Thornton is the answer in the middle

By Dustin Dow
Enquirer staff writer

How does a player who has never played a single game for a team become a co-captain in the preseason?

It's simple, really. Just become as important to a team's success as junior center Brian Thornton is for Xavier's.

Xavier coach Sean Miller said Tuesday that the Vanderbilt transfer would be a co-captain alongside senior Keith Jackson. But it is Thornton's other partnership with sophomore backup center Brandon Cole that is likely to be more critical toward what Xavier accomplishes on the court.

ON THE SPOT

In two successive seasons, Xavier has lost its primary rebounders and inside scorers to graduation. Replacing that muscle begins with the Musketeers' two centers: the projected starter in junior transfer Brian Thornton and his expected backup, sophomore Brandon Cole.

Brian Thornton

Misc.: Jr., 6 feet 8 1/2, co-captain

2003-04: Sat out the season per NCAA transfer bylaws

2002-03: Averaged 11.5 points and 5.7 rebounds at Vanderbilt

2001-02: Averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds at Vanderbilt

X-factor: Thornton could be one of the premier big men in the Atlantic 10 if his surgically repaired knees hold up. "I'm a different player than I was before," Thornton said. "As far as my explosion and athleticism, right now it's not as good as it was. But I think it can become better than it was. And what I have gained is I'm a year older and a year wiser. I feel like I'm a smarter player because of it."

Brandon Cole

Misc.: So., 6-8

2003-04: Averaged 3.1 points and 3.0 rebounds off the bench as a redshirt freshman

2002-03: Elected to sit out the season, realizing he would not see much playing time behind David West

X-factor: Is Cole ready to take on the work ethic of being a go-to player? "His game depends on strength and tenacity and quickness and sometimes, just effort," said Xavier coach Sean Miller.

Thornton is the projected starting center who must fill the Musketeers' interior void left by the graduations of Anthony Myles, Romain Sato and David West in the past two years.

"Brian Thornton is very valuable to our team," Miller said. "With our style of play, with a four-out, one-in flavor, it makes things go a lot easier when you can throw it in to that player and he can score."

And rebound. And defend the other team's best post player. And stay healthy. Thornton was required to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, but he used that year to undergo knee surgery that left him immobile for most of the season.

How well his knees hold up will play into Xavier's inside-outside threat.

Thornton said he feels better than he has in three or four years, and his court intelligence overcomes whatever mobility he has lost.

"We fully expect him to make it through (the season)," Miller said. "It's important for our team that he's able to be consistent and be able to make it through too."

The other significant player in Xavier's low-post game plan is Cole, a 6-foot-8 sophomore whose production increased at the end of last season after verbal prodding by Miller, who was an associate head coach at the time.

It is unlikely that Cole and Thornton both will be in the starting lineup, but Cole's growth beyond just filling in minutes would be ideal for Xavier's interior security.

"His role is simple," Miller said. "He's our team's best rebounder per minute played. We want him to energize our team inside. When we bring him off the bench, if it works out the way we want it to, he would come in and really spark us."

Thornton and Cole know each other well because Thornton was around plenty last season, even when he couldn't practice because of his knees.

Learning to play together this season, however, has strengthened their respect for each other's talents.

"Right now we're both centers, but as time goes on, you're going to see us playing together a lot," Thornton said. "I know I like to play with him, and I know the coaches would like to see us play together eventually."

Miller said the weight upon Thornton and Cole to be the go-to players inside is "significant."

Neither is expected to average a double-double by himself, but that is a combined goal they spoke about after the team's exhibition trip to the Bahamas Oct. 6-10.

"We probably don't have a guy like David West who's going to go average 10 or 12 rebounds a game," Cole said. "But Brian and myself, he can get six or seven, (and) I can give five or six or whatever. (Justin) Cage can get his five.

"It's going to have to be a job done by committee."

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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