PHOENIX (AP)—Xavier forward C.J. Anderson remembers the first time he played against Drew Lavender, in a 16-and-under AAU tournament in Ohio.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Who is this little guy?’ because he was scoring a lot of points,” Anderson said Friday.
Lavender and Anderson eventually became teammates at third-seeded Xavier, which plays top-seeded UCLA (34-3) in the NCAA’s West Regional final on Saturday. Lavender is a big reason the Musketeers (30-6) are one victory away from making their first trip to the Final Four.
Well, not that big. Listed at 5-foot-7, he’s one of the smaller players in the tournament.
“Drew’s a winner in every sense of the word,” backcourt partner Stanley Burrell said. “It’s great having him here. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for him.”
In Xavier’s first three tourney games, Lavender has averaged 13.3 points and six assists per game. Lavender went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute of an 85-78 victory over Purdue in the second round, finishing with 18 points and nine assists.
Lavender has a total of six turnovers in 106 high-pressure minutes. That might be the most important statistic on a team that depends on ball movement to spread the scoring load.
“I don’t think he turns the ball over a lot,” UCLA point guard Darren Collison said. “Any time you have good point guard play, you go far in the tournament. Obviously, he led his team to the elite eight for a reason.”
On Saturday, Lavender and Collison will share the spotlight at the point, but they probably won’t guard each other. Burrell said he’s likely to be assigned to Collison, and Lavender likely will guard Russell Westbrook, who stands 6-foot-3.
Lavender gives up eight inches to Westbrook. But Lavender is used to it.
Lavender said he rarely thinks about his size, except when he’s asked about it. It’s not his favorite subject, but he’s become used to questions.
“I got tired of everybody asking me all those questions about my size,” Lavender said. “Am I scared of going in there with all those trees and everything like that.
“It used to motivate me, but I’m just so used to it now, I’m just like ‘whatever,”’ Lavender said. “I laugh about it now when people ask about my size and everything. It’s just kind of funny now. It used bother me, but I don’t let it get to me anymore.”
Going back to grade school, Lavender said he’s always been among the smaller players on the floor. The only difference in college ball, he said, is that his opponents are much taller.
“They just got bigger and bigger, but it’s still basketball,” Lavender said. “It’s not like the ball got bigger or the hoop got smaller.”
For Lavender, the trip to the desert is part of a journey that began in 2003 at Oklahoma. He spent two years with the Sooners before deciding to transfer.
Coincidentally, his last OU game was in March 2005 in Tucson, about 90 miles to the south. The Sooners lost to Utah in the NCAA’s second round, and Lavender went 1-for-6 from the floor.
“After that, I was hoping that whatever school I came to was going to be a contender like we are now,” Lavender said. “I chose Xavier, and now here we are.”
Lavender said he considered transferring to Michigan or Seton Hall. Xavier turned out to be the best fit for Lavender. Coach Sean Miller was a standout point guard at Pittsburgh, so he understands what it takes to thrive at the position.
To Miller, it’s no surprise that Lavender is one of the last point guards standing in this tourney—even if he stands only 5-foot-7.
“He won a high school state championship,” Miller said. “He won a Big 12 championship at Oklahoma. And he’s won two conference championships at Xavier. He’s been a winner.”