When he moved to the Twin Cities area from Michigan in sixth grade, Xavier Hall noticed a lot of really good basketball players and a common theme among them: They only focused on scoring.
"That's all they worried about," said Hall, a top senior player at Tartan. "I took it upon myself to make a change and start focusing more on the defensive end."
Now in his third year as part of the Titans' varsity rotation, Hall has established himself as one of the top defensive talents in the metro. Longtime coach Mark Klingsporn called him one of the three best defensive players he's ever coached. That says a lot, considering Tartan's traditionally strong program.
Many onlookers peg Tartan as a defensive-minded team. That might not be the best way to describe the Titans, but it makes sense to their coach.
"I always like to tell people we're just a play-hard-minded team," Klingsporn said. "That's our whole M.O. We always talk about Tartan toughness. Play the game the right way. Play it really hard. I think that always leads to good defensive play because that's more about attitude and effort than anything else."
If that's the case, Hall perfectly fits the mold. Just listening to him describe the defensive aspect of the game shows he embraces it.
"It starts with tenacity," Hall said. "Don't let them score. Just having that mindset that you're not going to let your guy score no matter what."
But it takes more than one athlete to make up a team -- and staunch defense -- worthy of a conference crown. The defending Classic Suburban champions return with a well-rounded group, despite losing three starters from last year, including Kyle von Schmidt-Pauli to graduation and point guard Darrion Strong, who transferred to Quakerdale Prep in New Providence, Iowa.
Playmaker Kharie Kirkland started most of the games last year, and his time has come to play a bigger role.
"When you get to be a senior it's your time to shine, play that leadership role and take on more responsibility," Klingsporn said. "I think he's ready to do all those things."
Brody Jackson returns as the starting center. At 6-8, Jackson is entering only his third season of organized basketball. He was previously a hockey goalie.
Senior Mike Hudspeth was the Titans' leading scorer off the bench last year. The Titans are looking for Hudspeth to have a breakout season.
Tartan beat Como Park 97-77 in its season opener Tuesday night. Jackson led the Titans with 23 points and Kirkland added 18.
"We've seen a lot of dramatic improvement in our game," said Hall, who left the game early after a head-to-head collision with an opponent.
Hall's game has improved, too, defensively and offensively. And he's emerged as a leader.
"He's the face of our team and our program right now," Klingsporn said. "If you're looking to hire someone, if you're looking for a best friend, if you're looking for somebody to rely on as a student or as a player, this kid's got it all."