had Matta had been billed as a slowdown artist. He was inheriting a Xavier team coming off its worst shooting season in 36 years and its worst 3-point shooting campaign ever. Fans braced for boring basketball.
But after about eight weeks, the shots started falling. Scoring came up. Inside-outside balance developed. And XU steamrolled the Atlantic 10.
We've come a long way from last year, junior guard Dave Young said of XU's shooting. We put in some new plays where if teams double-(teamed) Dave West, they were going to have to pay for it. They're paying for it now.
XU (21-5, 13-2 A-10) has become a good shooting team, the league's best from 3-point range. And today it closes the regular season against Massachusetts (12-14, 6-9), a team that often can't shoot straight.
If A-10 Tournament seedings hold, XU's next game also will be against UMass, Thursday in Philadelphia.
UMass can't score, said ESPN.com columnist Joe Lunardi, an A-10 expert. They certainly can't outscore Xavier, whether the game is in Cintas (Center), the Spectrum or the Olympic Oval.
So what's the deal with Matta? Didn't his NCAA Tournament team last year at Butler average just 67.7 points a game in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference?
Yes. But he told those who would listen that he was willing to up the tempo with a more athletic team.
I never intended for this to be a slowdown-type team, Matta said. And this is a good shooting team.
XU's scoring average of 73.3 points is virtually identical to last year's 73.4. But it is shooting 45.2 percent from the field up from 42.7 last winter to rank as XU's best mark since 1997-98. Its 3-point figure of 36.6 percent, up from 30.3, is the best in nine seasons.
It has the league's top two individual shooters, West (54.2 percent) and Romain Sato (46.6).
West is a great player (inside), but Xavier also has a bunch of great shooters, UMass coach Steve Lappas said.
Through 12 games, the Musketeers were making 44 percent of their shots, including 32.8 percent of their 3-pointers, and scoring 71.7 points. In the 14 since, they have shot 46.3 percent overall, 39.6 percent from 3-point range, and averaged 74.7 points.
In A-10 play, opponents have tried to neutralize West inside, daring XU to beat them from the outside. Which it has done.
Several Musketeers have made quantum leaps from last winter:
Lionel Chalmers shot 36.5 percent then (30.2 on 3s) but is at 45.3 percent (37.4 on 3s) this season. He would rank third in the league in field-goal shooting if he had the minimum number of made baskets.
Sato shot 38.6 percent then (37.4 on 3s) and is at 46.6 (and 42.6) now. He has made 50.8 percent overall and 46.7 from 3-point range in A-10 play.
Young shot 37.1 percent last year and is at 41.6 percent now.
Coach puts a lot of emphasis on shooting in practice, Young said.
UMass, which had impressive wins early over Oregon and North Carolina State, has struggled since because of 41.5 percent shooting 39.7 percent in A-10 play. But its massive frontline of 6-foot-11 Micah Brand and 6-10 Kitwana Rhymer remains a matchup problem for XU; UMass swept XU in two meetings last winter.
An XU victory today would clinch the league's best overall record outright.
oop season may be over in Amherst, but the Massachusetts men's basketball team still has at least two games left before it can begin to forget the struggles of the 2001-02 campaign.
An NCAA tourney appearance is still technically possible, but it is so very far from the realms of probability. Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament gets UMass an automatic bid, of course. But that also figures the Minutemen (12-14, 6-9 A-10), who have secured fourth place in the A-10 East, beat either Duquesne or George Washington in the first round, Xavier in the second round, and barring upsets, St. Joseph's in the third and Hall-of-Famer John Chaney's Temple squad in the championship game.
A spot in the National Invitational Tournament is also theoretically possible, but that demands UMass beat Xavier (20-5, 12-2) in Cincinnati Saturday (Noon; ESPN), in its final game of the regular season, advance to the second round of the A-10 tournament, beat the Musketeers for the second time in five days, and then find victory in the third round, probably against St. Joe's. That would guarantee UMass at least a .500 record, and a chance for NIT consideration.
But beat Xavier, the A-10's best team, twice in the same week? That's tough.
"That's why it's important for us play well [Saturday]," said Lappas yesterday before practice. "You have to think it's tough to beat the same team twice in five days. Even if it's not a good team, that's hard."
Leading the Musketeers is David West, the sure choice for A-10 Player of the Year, who is averaging 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. The junior forward has ripped apart league foes, dominating the low post. The only way to stop this guy is get him off the blocks and hope he has an off-shooting night.
But Xavier's hazardous offense doesn't stop there. Sophomore guard Romain Sato has been toying with the conference's guards, using his 6-foot-5-inch frame and great handle to full advantage.
"He's going to be a tough guy for us to match-up with," said Lappas, who will start Shannon Crooks on Sato defensively. "He's a really good shooter, he has good size, and he's very athletic. He does a lot of good things. He's really a good player. He's had a great year."
Junior guards Lionel Chalmers and David Young (who, at 6-feet-5-inches, will be guarded by Raheim Lamb) join Sato in the starting backcourt, while senior forward Kevin Frey rounds out the starting five.
"They've played the best [of the teams in the league]," Lappas said. "They play very well together, and they've had a tremendous year."
Especially at home. Xavier is 11-1 in the fairly new Cintas Center, its only loss a 75-55 ripping from No. 4 Cincinnati. The Musketeers are averaging 10,219 fans a game.
Back on Dec. 1, the Minutemen defeated N.C. State 69-62 in front of 10, 801. And the A-10 tourney should draw a large crowd.
UMass is 1-0 this season while playing in front of crowds over 10,000. But that's a tough stat to count on.
INCINNATI - The dilemma facing University of Massachusetts coach Steve Lappas heading into Saturday's noon game at Xavier is the type great sports debates are made of.
The game will have no impact whatsoever on the Atlantic 10 standings. The Musketeers (21-5, 13-2) have clinched first place in the A-10 West, while the Minutemen (12-14, 6-9 A-10) are locked into the fourth seed in the East.
If UMass wins its first round game in the league tournament, its quarterfinal opponent would be Xavier, which has a first-round bye.
Lappas' conundrum is this: Do you go for broke Saturday using every trick you've got to try to win the game? Or do you keep a few in the bag, saving them for a Thursday playoff game that isn't even guaranteed to happen?
Making the National Invitation Tournament is a long shot for UMass, but it's possible. If the Minutemen beat Xavier twice and win their first round game (against either Duquesne or George Washington) they'd be 15-14 heading into the semifinals. Win or lose after that and they'd at least be NIT eligible.
But beating Xavier twice would be an extremely difficult task. If the Minutemen figure out a way to slow stars David West and/or Romain Sato Saturday, Musketeer coach Thad Matta would have a chance to make adjustments by the potential tournament game. Expecting the UMass coaching staff to come up with two schemes to stop Xavier in less than a week is quite a bit to ask.
No team has ever won the Atlantic 10 Tournament without a first-round bye since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1995-96, but at no time have the top seeds looked more vulnerable.
If the Minutemen were to beat Xavier in the quarterfinal, they'd be two wins away from the NCAA Tournament and history. Would it be worth risking the NIT by playing it close to the vest Saturday to go for broke next week?
Lappas was noncommittal.
"We have a couple different plans in this game," Lappas said. "Whether we use them all or not, we'll see."
UMass senior center Kitwana Rhymer has had success against West, last year's A-10 Player of the Year, in the past as the Minutemen swept the Musketeers last year.
"I just try my best to get in front of him and don't let him catch the ball on the block," Rhymer said. "David is a good offensive player as well as a good defensive player. You just try to play your best against him."
Rhymer said if you can out rebound West early, it can knock him off his game.
"Once you've blocked him out enough, he doesn't seem to go after the boards as much," Rhymer said. "He'll still go, but not as aggressive."
Rhymer said he relished the responsibility of facing West.
"I definitely like taking that responsibility. If I can shut him down - you can't really shut him down - but if I can do my best against him and everybody else does their job, I think it will be a whole lot easier."
While West, with 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game is the leading candidate to win the league's player of the year, some people have argued Xavier's most valuable player has been sophomore Sato. At 6-foot-5, he's the team's second-leading scorer (15.7 ppg) and rebounder (6.4 rpg.).
"Sato can really shoot," said Lappas, who will use senior Shannon Crooks to guard him first. "He's going to be a tough guy for us to match up with. He's got good size. He's athletic. He does a lot of good things. He's really a good player. He's had a great year."
NOTES: Former Minuteman coach John Calipari is expected to be at Saturday's game. Now the coach at Memphis, his Tigers play at Cincinnati on Sunday ... It will be senior day for the Musketeers.