PHOENIX - 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 yesterday.
Lavender and Anderson became teammates at third-seeded Xavier, which plays top-seeded UCLA (34-3) in the NCAA's West Regional final today. Lavender is a big reason the Musketeers (30-6) are one victory away from their first Final Four.
Well, not that big. Listed at 5 feet 7 inches, 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. He 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."
Today, 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 6-3 Russell Westbrook.
Lavender gives up 8 inches to Westbrook. But Lavender is used to it. He said he rarely thinks about his size, except when he's asked about it. It's not his favorite subject, but he's used to the 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,' " said Lavender, who spent two years at Oklahoma before transferring. "I laugh about it now when people ask about my size and everything. It's just kind of funny now. It used to bother me, but I don't let it get to me anymore."