CINCINNATI (AP) -The play epitomized Xavier's season.
The Musketeers were down one point against Saint Joseph's with under a minute to play on Sunday. Senior guard Stanley Burrell took matters into his hands, driving the baseline into a crowd of defenders.
Instead of forcing a shot in a crowd, he passed the ball to point guard Drew Lavender, who had a decent shot from the top of the key.
Shoot? No way.
Lavender caught the ball and passed it in one motion to 3-point specialist B.J. Raymond, who was unguarded in the left corner. Raymond's 3-pointer with 45 seconds left put Xavier ahead to stay and showed why the Musketeers are such a tough team to beat.
This is by far their most balanced team since they returned to national prominence in the 1980s.
``That's a team that's headed to the Top 10,'' Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said, after Xavier held on for a 76-72 win. ``They're not going into the Top 10 this week, but that's where they're headed.''
The Musketeers (20-4) are going places they haven't been for some time.
They moved up a spot to No. 12 in The Associated Press' poll on Monday, their highest ranking since they also were No. 12 in the final poll of 2003. That's the season when David West, Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers led the Musketeers to a 26-6 record and a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament.
A year later, the Musketeers had one of their best seasons, going 26-11 and coming within one victory of their first Final Four appearance. It ended with a 66-63 loss to Duke in a regional final.
This team is doing it without a surefire NBA player. Five players average double figures in an attack so balanced that defenses can't latch onto one shooter. The decisive basket against Saint Joseph's was a prime example.
``That's how unselfish we are,'' said Lavender, one of the nation's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. ``Nobody cares who takes the big shot. We just want to win. Stan could have easily forced up a shot, but he kicked it out to me. I could have forced a shot, but I saw B.J. in the corner.''
The comeback tightened Xavier's hold on first place. The Musketeers are 8-1 in Atlantic 10 play, two games better than Saint Joseph's and Rhode Island. They have games left at Rhode Island, at Dayton and at Saint Joseph's.
Since they faded in the final minutes of an 82-75 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 22, the Musketeers have gone on an impressive run. They've won 12 of their last 13 games, 10 of them by double-digits.
``The one thing this team has done a good job of is never really putting the cart before the horse,'' coach Sean Miller said. ``Our focus right now is to compete for the conference championship. I think everybody understands the best way to do that is to be very consistent every day. We've done that the whole way through.''
Xavier leads the conference in scoring margin, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. The Musketeers are second in points allowed and hold opponents to the lowest field goal and 3-point shooting percentages in the conference.
Also, they have the best rebounding margin in the conference.
Martelli has seen a lot of good Xavier teams during his 13 seasons at Saint Joseph's, and is impressed with this one's defense, balance and grit.
``This team has a lot of Sean in them, I think,'' Martelli said. ``He looks mild-mannered and Clark Kent-like, but he's going to fight you and scrap you whether it's recruiting or on the sideline. They have a lot of that in them with this team.''
Especially their three seniors.
Lavender runs a patient offense that is one of the nation's most efficient. Guard Stanley Burrell has become the team's top perimeter defender, shutting down the other team's top scorer each game. Forward Josh Duncan has become an inside threat as well as an outside shooter.
``Their mind is in the right place, every one of them,'' Miller said. ``Our players clearly allow those three guys to lead them.''
They've welcomed the chance to set the tone.
``This team is so tough,'' Burrell said. ``We're poised, too. We've been in situations where we've had our backs against the wall, and what are we going to do? We fought with everything we had.''

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