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‘Mid-major' Xavier wants a promotion

The Musketeers, who'll face Kansas State in an NCAA West Regional semifinal, feel they've moved up in the ranks.

March 24, 2010|By Chris Foster

Reporting from Salt Lake City — Xavier Coach Chris Mack bristled a bit.

His team had just dispatched Big East beast Pittsburgh, which had eliminated his team from the NCAA tournament a year ago. The NCAA West Regional semifinal was next, but, once again, that "mid-major" label was attached.

Mack fielded a question about where his program fit in the college basketball hierarchy as if he was being denied a place at the adult table.

"I really take offense to the comment," Mack said. "I know you didn't do it on purpose, but we don't look at ourselves as anything but being a high-major program."

Others view things differently. Xavier remains an X-factor to most, an unknown in a tournament where story lines are pretty simple. You're either Cornell or Kentucky. Big Red or Big Blue Blood.

The Musketeers are neither.

Xavier has made nine NCAA tournament appearances since 2001 and advanced to two regional finals. But there's also this: In four of their last five they have been ousted by No. 1-seeded teams.

It's the type of repetitive stress Xavier can cure over the next few days. The Musketeers play Kansas State, the regional's second-seeded team, Thursday at the EnergySolutions Arena, with a chance to meet top-seeded Syracuse on Saturday. The Orange face Butler in the other semifinal Thursday night.

"I was watching ESPN the other night and they were breaking down all the teams and we were a mid-major team but our strength was our high-major talent," sophomore guard Terrell Holloway said. "That's the label we got. If you check our track record with teams we have beaten the last couple years, you know what kind of team we are."

Xavier and Michigan State are the only programs in the country that have reached the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season. The Musketeers' best tournament runs have been ended by Pittsburgh (2009 regional semifinal), UCLA (2008 regional final) and Duke (2004 regional final).

"I think Xavier is always overlooked," sophomore guard Jordan Crawford said. "We just play with a chip on our shoulders. The things we do don't get noticed."

Xavier officials have tried. The basketball team has become the face of the university, with so much money pouring into the program in the past decade that the university's president, Father Michael Graham, said in November, "The money we pay our basketball coaches should be billed to our marketing department."

The team takes chartered flights and Mack has a private plane available to him for recruiting trips.

Only when it gets to a national stage does the basketball team's reputation fly coach.

Though Xavier is a power in the Atlantic 10, the conference has baby-brother status compared to surrounding conferences such as the Big East, Big Ten and Southeastern. Even around home, Cincinnati has received most of the attention, particularly during former coach Bob Huggins' regime.

"You could look 90 miles or 100 miles east, west, north and south, and you have some tremendous programs," Mack said. "From Louisville to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio State. But you check our record; it's pretty good."

Xavier has won 25 or more games seven times in the last nine seasons, including this season's 26-8 record. But that seems to have created little traction.

The program has been a way station for coaches who found the contracts, if not the grass, a little greener somewhere else. Skip Prosser left for Wake Forest, Thad Matta went to Ohio State and, after last season, Sean Miller headed for Arizona.

Mack, though, is a different breed. He played at Xavier and was an assistant coach for the Musketeers the past five seasons, as well as in two previous seasons with Prosser.

"I don't see him going anywhere," senior center Jason Love said. "He loves Xavier. He loves Cincinnati. He's here for a long time."

Whether that it will be long enough to see Xavier elevated to the next level is to be seen.

"I don't know what else we can do," Love said. "The only thing we can do is to keep winning. The wins speak for themselves."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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