Now that its top gunner has diversified his game, stingy Xavier specializes in shutting down opposing scorers
THIS SEASON X marks the spot where top shooters miss their target. Whenever one of the nation's premier scorers goes up against No. 12 Xavier (20--4 through Sunday), he inevitably winds up having a subpar game (box). Though the Musketeers have a plethora of offensive weapons (six players—guards Stanley Burrell, Drew Lavender and B.J. Raymond, and forwards C.J. Anderson, Derrick Brown and Josh Duncan—average double digits in scoring), it's their lockdown defense that at week's end had propelled them to a 6--1 record against teams ranked in the RPI top 50. "There are nights when the offense comes and goes," says Xavier coach Sean Miller, "but that tough defense is what has to be our constant."
Of the high-profile victims, all but Kansas State forward Michael Beasley were the defensive assignment of one particular Musketeer: Burrell. The senior's transformation into what Massachusetts coach Travis Ford has called "the best defensive player in the [ Atlantic 10]" would have seemed implausible earlier in his career. As a freshman and sophomore the Indianapolis native was almost exclusively a three-point gunner, leading the team in scoring both seasons. "I just wanted to score points," says Burrell. "I couldn't have cared less about defense."
During Burrell's sophomore year, "I told him he had great potential as a defender," says assistant James Whitford. "He looked at me like I was speaking Spanish." But when Burrell's outside shot deserted him last season (he made just 5 of 26 treys during one five-game stretch), he began dedicating himself to other aspects of his game. "Without a lot of people recognizing it," says Miller, "Stanley became more well-rounded."
Even Miller was surprised, however, to see Burrell take over as Xavier's primary stopper, a role previously held by forward Justin Cage. It's now a given that the 6'3" Burrell will take on the opponent's top weapon, unless he's a post player like Beasley. "Every time I have a big-name matchup, I take it personally," says Burrell. The day before facing Dayton's Brian Roberts—who has scored 30 or more points three times this season—Whitford gave Burrell a DVD of every shot Roberts had taken in his previous eight games. "He called me at home that night with questions," says Whitford. The next night Roberts didn't make a field goal until only 8:40 remained in the first half, after Burrell had gone to the bench with his second foul.
But Burrell doesn't do it alone. "Our defensive strategy requires players to depend on each other," says Whitford. "We have a triangle around the ball at all times." Such was the case in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, when a trio of seemingly undersized Xavier defenders hounded Ohio State 7-footer Greg Oden, who committed four turnovers and fouled out.
The ninth-seeded Musketeers were seconds from toppling the top-seeded Buckeyes in that game before Xavier gave up a long three-pointer and fell in overtime. If it keeps up its current pace, this year's squad figures to enter the tournament with both a higher seed and higher aspirations. "If we're defending well," says Whitford, "we're difficult to beat."
ONLY AT SI.COM More on Xavier in Luke Winn's Power Rankings.