New Orleans Hornets forward David West wasn’t a high school All-American. He began his college years unhappy about going to class, and he lacked communication skills with teammates and coaches.
But once enrolled at Xavier, he became a three-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, the 2003 National Player of the Year and is now an NBA All-Star.
A month before college graduation during the basketball team’s senior banquet, West gave a speech packed with humor, eloquence and emotion in a three-minute bundle.
“It was awesome,” Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “I thought, ‘It does work.’”
“It” would be the Musketeers basketball program, which has reached today’s NCAA tournament Elite Eight for the second time in four years, and is a win against UCLA from the first Final Four in school history.
Not bad for a Jesuit school of 4,000 undergraduates which sits across town from mighty Cincinnati, yet is playing in its 18th NCAA tournament in 25 years.
The Musketeers don’t have the size to stack up against the better Atlantic 10 football teams, so, with university and private backing, basketball became the school’s M.O.
“We don’t propose to be holier than thou because we’re not,” Bobinski said. “We’ve had issues like everyone has, but we never want to be in a position where we have to apologize for our success.”
There aren’t any blue-chip recruits. Senior point guard Drew Lavender is the only McDonald’s All-American in school history, but he transferred back home from Oklahoma.
And school is not an option. Seventy consecutive seniors from the basketball program eventually earned degrees, a span Bobinski pegged at 18 to 19 years.
“You look at who we’ve developed, the arena (privately-funded, $55 million Cintas Center), going to the tournament and small-college feel, and that’s why guys are coming here,” senior guard Stanley Burrell said. “We’re not the most individually-talented in the country, but guys know they’ll probably be in this tournament more than once in their careers.”
As a result of Xavier’s track record, coaches have come and gone on to bigger things.
Current coach Sean Miller, 39, could be next.
His success in his four seasons at Xavier has prompted questions all weekend about the prospect of bigger, larger-conference schools calling him.
The Musketeers restructured Miller’s contract before this season, extending him through 2015-2016 — an approach the school didn’t pursue nearly as aggressively with previous coaches.
Miller said all the right things this week about his desire to stay, and the school isn’t worried about its coach being the next to say one thing while doing another.
“He’s a different guy,” Bobinski said. “It’s not an obsession of his, where other coaches have that priority. It’s not who he is or how he was raised.”
The Musketeers figured to fall off slightly this season after they lost their three top players to graduation.
Instead, they’ve gone one step further, and that’s the pudding Miller used as proof he wants to be the main Musketeer.
“The one constant has been the university, and they’ve never been confused on what it takes to be successful at the highest level,” Miller said. “Xavier is a unique place.”
“We have a great product here and we know what butters our bread. We’re going to stay true to that.”