Team preview: Xavier

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Sean Miller is only in his third season as head coach of Xavier, but it feels more like his sixth. That's because last season was like three in one.

There was the beginning, when the Musketeers had a healthy Brian Thornton in the post and Dedrick Finn running the point. The game plan was to dump the ball into Thornton and allow him to dictate the flow of games.

There was the middle, when Thornton broke his ankle and was lost for the year, Finn was kicked off the team, and what appeared to be an NCAA Tournament-caliber team began a downward spiral that threatened to knock it out of NIT contention.

And, of course, there was the end, when upperclassmen who had been struggling began to perform how they were expected to, freshmen matured seemingly overnight, and Xavier became the only team in NCAA history to win four games in four days in its conference tournament twice, matching its 2004 performance.

Miller's ability to navigate the three seasons-within-a-season made the contract extension he signed before the season look like a bargain. And because of that experience, a team that appeared to have its confidence crushed at the end of the regular season suddenly appears to be one of the most talented in the country.

"They've been through so many ups and downs," Miller said about his team. "It helps when you're led by those people."

"Those people" are a cast of players who flew under the radar last season, but won't be so lucky this time around. Players like seniors Justin Cage, Justin Doellman and Brandon Cole, and juniors Stanley Burrell and Josh Duncan, who've experienced nearly everything a college basketball player can experience. All four players have been part of a powerhouse NCAA Tournament team, and have snuck into the NCAA Tournament by winning four games in four days.

As if those experiences didn't galvanize the players, every single one of them, including the Musketeers' two incoming freshmen, spent the summer in Cincinnati, taking classes and working out together. The focal point of every day were the pick-up games, where the players showed an emotional side that Cage hadn't seen before, even in the best of times.

"It might be game point for 10 minutes because nobody wanted to lose," Cage said. "If you're coming to the rim, somebody was going to knock you down. Whatever shots you made, you were going to earn.

"We didn't give up games as easily as before, and everyone stayed over to play one-on-one."

Oh, and on top of returning four starters from a team that stormed into the postseason, Xavier added an Atlantic 10 Player-of-the-Year candidate in junior point guard Drew Lavender. College basketball fans will remember Lavender from his two years with Oklahoma. He started as a freshman and sophomore for the Sooners, and was one of the top players in the Big 12 before transferring to the Musketeers.

Even without Lavender, Xavier would have been considered among the top three or four teams in the league this season. But with him, the Musketeers get the nod over Charlotte, Saint Louis and Massachusetts, even though all of them have improved.

"Every coach will tell you that where he thinks his team will finish the season and where it's predicted are two different things," Miller said. "The bottom line is we want to be there at the end of the season, and if other people are saying good things about us, that's great.

"After what we went through a year ago, I'm excited."