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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2008

Titan trio tremendous; Roberts, Raymond, Hillesland build legacy in college

They all went to the same high school. They all went to Catholic universities. They all remain close. Two, however, will be close enough to touch one another today when 10th-ranked Xavier makes the short trip to play Dayton at UD Arena.

"Brian's having a great year and I always wish him the best," Xavier's B.J. Raymond said of Dayton's leading scorer, Brian Roberts. "But not in this game."

Roberts, a 6-foot-2 senior, averages a team-high 19.4 points for Dayton. He's been the Flyers' leading scorer in 19 of 25 games this season and a 30-point performance in an overtime loss at LaSalle on Thursday marked the fourth time he's scored 30 or more points.

Raymond, a junior, is Xavier's sixth man, and he's instant offense for the Musketeers, who have won nine straight games and 15 of their last 16. He has made a team-high 66 3-point shots and tied for team scoring honors with 13 points in a romp past Duquesne on Thursday. But that balance is not unusual for Xavier which, incredibly, has six players averaging in low double figures. The 6-6 Raymond is one of them with an 11.1 average.

Their former St. John's Jesuit teammate, Zach Hillesland, will be busy today too. His Notre Dame Fighting Irish play host to Syracuse, seeking a 36th consecutive home victory. The 21st-ranked Irish are 20-5 and 10-3 in Big East play. Hillesland, a 6-9 junior forward who alternates between starter and sixth man, averages 21 minutes per game and contributes 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds.

"Zach's a little upset right now that we're ranked higher," Raymond said, laughing. "I hope we play them next year; or maybe sooner in the [NCAA] tournament. I'd love to go against my good buddy."

He'll get that chance against another old friend, Roberts, today as the Musketeers (23-4) try to wrap up the Atlantic 10 Conference title and proceed toward a lofty seed for the NCAA tournament.

Will we ever again see one Toledo high school produce three players from roughly the same class who proceed to play at such a high level in major college basketball?

"The odds are pretty long in seeing a group like that again It's highly unlikely," said Ed Heintschel, who coached the trio at St. John's.

Dayton coach Brian Gregory, a onetime assistant at the University of Toledo, credits Heintschel's program for making it happen.

"It was instilled in all of them what it would take to be successful at the next level," Gregory said. "You can put Brian, B.J. and Zach against anybody in the country in character and that's as good as you'll find."

Roberts' character has been tested of late, but he continues to produce despite the Flyers losing seven of their last 10 after being ranked as high as No. 14 in the country on the basis of a 14-1 start. Dayton lost a couple players, including No. 2 scorer Chris Wright, to injuries at the same time Roberts was suffering through an upper-respiratory infection that affected him for several weeks.

"It definitely hurt my stamina and I wasn't able to perform to the best of my ability," said Roberts, whose Flyers are 17-8 and 5-7 in the A-10. "Then, there were those injuries. It might have been a different story. But, there are no excuses. It's basketball. It's a matter of how you respond and the Xavier game will be huge."

Roberts, who is a lock to become the first Dayton player since Jim Paxson to lead the team in scoring three straight years, is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award that goes to the nation's top point guard. He's also in the mix for the John Wooden Award, college basketball's highest individual honor.

"You look at the burden on him because of injuries, the lingering effects of his illness and the added pressure of playing against the defensive schemes in this league and I think it hurt him for a few games," Gregory said. "But Brian is definitely back on track. He was a great player in December and he's a better player now. He uses his quickness better, he makes better decisions with the ball and plays better defense. He's approaching the end and he just keeps developing."

Xavier coach Sean Miller credits Raymond's development to perseverance.

"In college athletics, if it doesn't happen right away, some guys don't stick around," Miller said. "But B.J. always took the right approach. His high school and family background produced a work ethic and attitude. He stayed the course and he is definitely our most improved player now and a major factor on our team. We have a group of guys who approach the game very unselfishly and B.J. is right in the middle of that."

Raymond was an inside player at St. John's out of necessity, but has become a perimeter threat for the Musketeers.

"I had to find a jump shot somewhere, anywhere, because I knew what position coach Miller wanted me to come here and play," Raymond said.

He found one, and then some. Raymond, who Heintschel says hated to lose more than any player he has coached, is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range.

Heintschel insists that Hillesland, at least in high school, was the most athletic of the three players.

"He's sort of a freak of nature, in a good way," Heintschel said. "Mike Bray, Notre Dame's coach, was at a practice one day and told me, 'My goodness, Zach's like a college guard.'•"

When Bray offered Hillesland a grant-in-aid, the player told the coach that he would have to think about it.

"He told me that the next day and I asked him, 'What do you have to think about?'•" Heintschel recalled. "It's Notre Dame, it's the Big East, it's two hours away. Zach said, 'Geez, I'd better call him back right now.'•"

And the rest, for this special trio of ex-Titans, is history.

"I think it speaks highly of St. John's, that the type of players the school produces can play anywhere," Raymond said.

Roberts said "I'd like to think so" when asked if it was as good a group as any local school has produced.

"It might be hard to match," he said. "You look at what Zach's doing at Notre Dame, which is having a great season. B.J. is playing a big role on one of the best teams in the country.

"We knew what type of talent and competitiveness we had at St. John's. I knew we'd all be successful. Those were good days."

And they're just continuing.



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