Xavier assistant Jeff Battle often wonders where coach Skip Prosser hides his pixie dust. "He sprinkles it on the players, and no matter what story he tells them, they believe it," says Battle. "Every day they are wide-eyed and looking forward to his words."
Prosser, a former high school history teacher who plucks his daily motivational gems from any source that moves him, be it Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or the latest Tom Clancy novel, called upon the recorded wisdom of women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance, who has won 13 NCAA titles at North Carolina, to inspire his Musketeers before a game against Atlantic 10 rival Virginia Tech last Saturday. "The greatest tribute you can give an opponent is to crush them," Prosser told his enthralled charges on Friday. "It shows you've prepared for them."
Anyone who doubts the potency of pixie dust should have been at the Cincinnati Gardens on Saturday night. The Hokies left Xavier's funky old home court with a 102-67 loss, the worst defeat—or was it the best tribute?—in coach Bill Foster's six-year tenure at Tech. "Xavier is the team to beat in this league, no question," said Foster after the game. "I just hope they're as good as they're going to get."
Who expected Xavier, a small Jesuit school (enrollment 3,756) that starts three sophomores and two juniors, to be even this good: 10-0 at week's end and rated 12th in the country, the Musketeers' highest ranking since the 1958-59 season? Who expected a team that was 13-15 last year, in its first season in the Atlantic 10, to be so formidable? Not crosstown rival Cincinnati, which lost its No. 1 ranking when it fell 71-69 to Xavier on Nov. 26, and not Kansas State, which was thrashed 95-54 by the Musketeers on Dec. 29.
Before Xavier faced the Wildcats, Prosser didn't say much; he just popped in a videotape showing a scene from Super Bowl X, between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. "It's probably my favorite play in sports," says Prosser, a Pittsburgh native. In it, Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert picks up a Cowboy who was picking on the Pittsburgh kicker and throws him to the ground. "The point Coach was making was that we are the intimidators," said 5'11" senior guard Sherwin Anderson. "No one can push us around."
So far, remarkably, no one has. The undersized Musketeers, whose starters average a mere 6'5¾", have stood up to all their opponents with a withering pressure defense and a balanced attack. At week's end six different players had led Xavier in scoring. "We're all the go-to guys on this team," says junior forward Torraye Braggs.
During the nine-season reign of former coach Pete Gillen, the Musketeers went to seven NCAA tournaments and slew several giants, including Missouri in 1987 and Georgetown in '90. But when Gillen left after the '93-94 season for Providence, it was widely assumed the program would slip back into its pre-Gillen obscurity, especially given the growing shadow of Cincinnati. Instead the Xavier administration got more aggressive: It hired Prosser, a former Gillen assistant who had taken Loyola of Maryland from a 2-25 record to an NCAA berth in one year; a year later it ditched the Midwestern Collegiate Conference for the much tougher Atlantic 10; and it set down plans for an on-campus, 10,000-seat arena that should be finished by the year 2000.
Though the addition of the 6'8" Braggs, a junior college transfer, and 6'7" James Posey has given the Musketeers a low-post presence they lacked last year, Xavier's heart and soul are sophomore guards Lenny Brown and Gary Lumpkin, who are in their seventh year together. They were teammates in middle school and at William Penn High in New Castle, Del., but are "like night and day," says Battle. Point guard Lumpkin, whose father died when he was five, grew up in the suburbs, where he played the organ in church and "did exactly what I was told," he says. Brown, a ninth-grade truant who barely knew his father, lived in the Wilmington projects, where, he says, "I used basketball as a tool to keep me from selling drugs." When they moved in together as freshmen at Xavier, Lumpkin brought his gospel tapes, Brown brought his rap. But they've always had a harmonious relationship. "Each of us is the first to congratulate the other on a good play," says Brown.
That spirit is not confined to the starting backcourt. "This team has great chemistry," says Anderson. "The guys all love playing with each other. I think we all realize we have a chance to do something really special. And I believe we will."
A Swingman, of Sorts