CINCINNATI – When it comes to promoting its star players no school is as aggressive and resourceful as Xavier. This isn't the biggest basketball program in the nation, but when the Musketeers have a star they pull out all the stops to draw attention.
Posters, flyers even bobble head dolls are sent out. It's one reason why David West won a number of national player of the year awards last season. And, ironically, why so many people are overlooking XU this year.
No West, no Xavier, right?
Well, assistant athletic director Tom Eiser's newest creation is, in some ways, a statement as to what just might become of Xavier now that West is in the NBA.
On Eiser's desk on Friday was a Russian nesting doll – those egg shaped things that open up to reveal a small one inside, then a smaller one inside that and so on – with the likeness of XU senior Romain Sato. The first doll depicted Sato in his Xavier uniform, holding a basketball.
The one inside revealed Sato in cap and gown (he'll graduate next spring). Open that and there was a small Sato doll in an African shirt.
"It's crazy," Sato says. "I think it is funny."
It is really funny, which is why it will work. In the saturated market of promoting players to the media, this will stand out. If Sato delivers like West did he'll get his share of honors.
And within a few months, every college basketball fan (and impressionable recruit) will know of Romain Sato.
The doll represents just one part of Sato's changing role in the program. The past three years Sato played the perfect second man to West. While Xavier coach Thad Matta insists he is not counting on any one player to fill West's shoes, Sato is going to have to be better if Xavier is going to remain a top-20 team.
"I think for Romain the big question is, is he going to fill David West's shoes?" said Matta, whose team went 26-6 last season. "The answer is no, we don't want him to. We want him to do what Romain does and do it very well.
"We are expecting Romain to be better than last year. What that entails we don't know yet. Romain might have to take bigger shots down the stretch, but he did that for us before."
This is fine with Sato, the brilliant 6-foot 4-inch athlete from the Central African Republic. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 rebounds last year, so he has the game. During his four years at XU he has grown more mature and more comfortable; his command of the English language is vastly improved.
So the idea of being at the center of a media campaign doesn't scare him.
"I [am] looking forward to it," Sato said. "Last year Tom Eiser did all these things for David West. He [did] a lot of good things to help the player. I think it is good. And good for the team."
The questions about Sato – namely his ability to put the ball on the deck and get to the paint – have largely been answered. The NBA will be watching his every move this year.
"When we got here he was a catch-and-shoot guy," said Matta, who took over before Sato's sophomore year. "The first year he was able to put one dribble down, pick up and score. Last year he got to the foul line because he was able to get to the basket.
"His freshman year he had just one dunk. Now he is going to the hole, he is offensive rebounding. Probably the biggest improvement I saw out of Romain last year was his passing. His game is all-around better."
There is an unmistakable air of motivation around the program this fall. XU has turned into the premier program in the Atlantic 10 but, because West was such a big name – the three-time league player of the year – the expectations are different this year.
"I tell them, 'Hey fellas, I am not getting the calls I used get at this time last year,'" Matta said. "Media, being ranked in the top 20, things like that."
The reality is that four starters are back and Matta's last two recruiting classes have been excellent.
"I think we have a good team," Sato said. "We have good coach, good players."
Just no stars. At least not yet. The Romain Sato campaign – nesting dolls on order – is just beginning.