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Xavier’s Seniors Keep Winning

February 20, 2008 Columns No Comments

Xavier’s Veterans Have Seen It All

by Phil Kasiecki

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Stanley Burrell said it best when talking about how his team responded to a rally by Rhode Island on Monday night.

“We’ve been in so many situations like that, at this point, we’re so poised nothing really rattles us anymore,” said the Xavier senior guard. “The crowd going crazy, them making unbelievable shots and everything – we’ve seen all that before. So we never get into a situation where we panic.”

Indeed, this team has been through plenty. The current group of seniors, save for Drew Lavender (a transfer from Oklahoma), has been there since Sean Miller began his tenure as the program’s head coach. They’ve been through a lot of winning – Monday night’s win was the 85th the last four years – but it’s not just that. It’s made impressive by what else they’ve been through along the way to do the winning they have.

Miller went through their accomplishments over the years after their 81-77 win over the Rams. One thing that stands out is what they did two years ago when they won the Atlantic 10 championship. They won it as the No. 7 seed and had overcome a great deal of adversity in the latter part of that season. Their point guard was kicked off the team, an assistant coach got suspended after being arrested for driving under the influence, and their best player and the heart and soul of their team, Brian Thornton, suffered a season-ending injury. A key reserve didn’t make it all the way back from a bad knee injury until late January. There weren’t a lot of seniors on that team at that point, as it was juniors who were the team’s big leaders and Burrell and Josh Duncan each played big roles as sophomores.

So having to stave off rallies by the host Rams with a loud, capacity crowd wasn’t anything this team couldn’t handle. Add that to having several difficult road games in non-conference play this season and then a few challenging ones of late (their prior three games were decided by a combined eight points with two coming on the road), and you have a team that will be as battle-tested as any come March. They’ll also be a group that has proven as much as anyone.

“I credit our senior class for being really special,” said Miller. “When I talk about our senior class, that’s what I’m talking about. Those three guys have really separated themselves as a premier group, not only in our conference but for our program. They’re really going down that path of setting a tremendous legacy. They’re a special group.”

The special group scored 23 of the team’s 37 points in the second half. While the team’s scoring balance is well-documented, the Musketeers won with just two players in double figures and four with either right or nine points. More importantly, they all came at crucial times. Every time the Musketeers ended a run by the Rams or had another big play, it seems there was a senior there.

After the Rams took a 51-50 lead, Burrell hit a jumper to give them the lead again. After the Rams went up 57-54, Lavender hit a three-pointer to tie it, with Burrell getting one of his seven assists on the night. When Duncan, who was 8-8 from the field and hasn’t missed a shot since their win over Saint Joseph’s last Sunday, hit a three-pointer to put them up 60-59, Burrell again had an assist. Burrell then gave them the lead for good with a jumper that Duncan assisted on.

That wasn’t enough, though. The last field goal they made before having to knock down free throws was one where Burrell found Duncan for a short jumper with 1:13 left to put them up 71-63. Of the ten free throws they hit in the final minutes, six of them came from seniors Burrell and Lavender.

Burrell is perhaps the best example of the consummate winner on this team. He was one of the conference’s top freshmen three years ago, and as a sophomore he continued to improve. His offense hasn’t been quite as good since that time, but he hasn’t let that affect other parts of his game. Indeed, he’s arguably the conference’s top defensive player in the conference, consistently shutting down top players in the conference like Dayton’s Brian Roberts, UMass’ Ricky Harris and La Salle’s Darnell Harris. Most recently, he did that to Rhode Island’s Jimmy Baron.

On Monday, he held Baron without a field goal and only let him get three three-point attempts. One of them was a last-second heave, so he really got just two attempts that can be attributed to either how hard the offense worked to get him shots or how hard his defender worked to stop him. Baron is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best shooters, and there wasn’t much he could do on Monday night.

“That’s what I do,” said Burrell. “Guys are counting on me to bring it every single night defensively. I hurt our team a lot offensively with the plays I was making, but defensively, that’s what I do. I’m coming out and trying my best to pitch a shutout every night.”

Duncan has been a solid blender player his entire career, but of late he has really turned it up a notch. He was the conference co-player of the week last week and has scored in double figures in eight straight games. In Atlantic 10 play, he’s shooting over 61 percent from the field and about 58 percent on three-pointers. His 23 points on Monday were in a reserve role, one he’s had for all but 11 games this season and not because he isn’t good enough to start.

“Josh Duncan, in my opinion has emerged as one of the premier players in our conference,” said Miller.

Lavender gutted it out on Monday as he played with a sprained ankle. Miller said he was going at about 50 percent, but you’d never know it from what he gives the team. There was a question as to whether or not he would play, but the team knew by about the shoot-around on Monday that he would play.

“For a little guy, he has the biggest heart you’ve ever seen,” said Miller.

Xavier’s balanced scoring is well-documented. They have six players who average in double figures, and Miller takes none of the credit for it. There is an amazing amount of trust among the players that leads to this, illustrated only partly by the fact that just one of those top six scorers averages under one assist per game.

As important as that is, the most important reason this team is the class of the Atlantic 10 in a solid year for the conference is their experience. They’re a fine example of a team that has overcome adversity and thrived when it shows up again, no matter the nature of it. And that experience is probably one more reason this team has the kind of trust in each other that they show.


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