Tag: Sweet 16

Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)

Tradition of success through change raises expectations at Xavier

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Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES — Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino have stellar reputations for winning in March, combining to reach the Sweet 16 13 times in the last eight seasons. They also happen to head the only two programs that can say they’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament more often during that time than Xavier, who has won at least two games in college basketball’s biggest event five of the last eight years.

There’s more.

Xavier has been to the NCAA tournament nine of the last ten seasons, something that only ten schools can claim. Five of them — Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin — have been all ten years, which puts the Musketeers in a class with college basketball’s elite.

This current run has occurred under the watch of the two head coaches who will meet in a West Region semifinal Thursday night. Sean Miller, the head coach of No. 2 Arizona, ran the Xavier program from 2004-09, with his understudy and current head coach of No. 6 Xavier, Chris Mack, taking the reins from that point forward.

Mack was a member of Miller’s staff before getting promoted once Miller left for Tucson, and that is a storyline that has received an ample amount of attention this week. But there’s also the matter of continuity, and a look into that will reveal that both coaches had — or, in the case of Mack, have — tools at their disposal at Xavier that have helped the program both attain and sustain success despite multiple coaching changes and multiple conference affiliations.

“Everybody is aligned, and their basketball program is very important,” Miller said when asked about what stuck out to him during his eight years (assistant and head coach) at Xavier. “And because it’s very important, there are people that have given their heart and soul to make it the best it can be, whether it be the Cintas Center, and if you haven’t been there, in my opinion it’s one of the great arenas in the game that’s built right on campus. It’s a quest to be better every year. Never be satisfied.”

Those traits go well beyond the current ten-year run, with Xavier winning 21 or more games in 27 of the last 32 seasons going back to Bob Staak leading the Musketeers to 22 wins in 1982-83. Following Staak’s six-year run some familiar names have led the program, from Pete Gillen to the late Skip Prosser, and from Prosser to current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta who won 26 games in each of his three seasons (with Miller as one of his assistants) before moving on.

For some programs the coaching changes not only result in the occasional transition year, but a prolonged malaise of sorts where the act of winning 20 games in a season becomes something to celebrate as opposed to an achievement that is simply accepted.

“I would say that ever since Bob Staak and Pete Gillen, along with some great players, guys like Byron Larkin and Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong really put Xavier on the map, the expectations for Xavier basketball have been extremely high,” Mack said.

“Guys like Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean, carried the torch and simply elevated the program to new heights. Our fan base has come to expect getting to the NCAA tournament, and that not even being acceptable, but to advance.”

The question for Xavier moving forward is whether or not those expectations have and will increase. When the Musketeers began this lengthy run of success in the early 1980’s they were a member of the Midwestern City Conference (which was eventually renamed the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and is now the Horizon League).

Since then the Musketeers have spent time in the Atlantic 10, and this is their second season as a member of the Big East. While the competition and traditions of the Atlantic 10 schools are nothing to scoff at, moving to the Big East changed the equation for Xavier and fellow newcomers Butler and Creighton.

“I think it’s been a natural progression for our program to go from the MCC, which is now the Horizon League, to the Atlantic 10, which was a great move at the time for Xavier, now to a conference that is arguably one of the best basketball conferences in the entire country,” Mack said of the conference moves. “It’s a hefty bar at Xavier.”

But does that move apply some sort of pressure to Xavier to get past the second weekend, despite the fact that many of the most powerful programs in college basketball can also tap into another revenue stream (major college football)? The program’s had the resources needed, from coaches to facilities to everything else that comes with college basketball, to be successful and Xavier’s history bears that out.

“That’s why when you look at seven Sweet Sixteens, when you look at [Xavier’s] tournament history…I was actually looking at our history at Arizona, which you could make the case is second to none,” Miller noted. “When you put up Xavier’s history, especially in the NCAA tournament, it’s amazing that there are some comparisons.”

While the final weekend of the college basketball season is obviously important, focusing solely on that can at times be at the expense of recognizing what’s been done leading up to that point. But as we’ve seen both this season and in years past, matchups have a lot to do with whether or not a program can navigate the bracket and reach the Final Four. And with those being unpredictable until the bracket is released, the best a program can do is to ensure that its coaches and players have everything they need to succeed.

Do that, and for many programs the one-game “lottery” that is the NCAA tournament eventually produces a favorable result. Will there be a point where a trip to the Final Four will be “demanded” of Xavier? Maybe so, but a lot of that depends upon factors such as seeding. Look at Gonzaga, which has transformed from a “Cinderella” program to one that’s been criticized in recent years for not backing up strong regular seasons with deep tournament runs (despite losing just one game to a lower-seeded team since 2009).

Whether or not questions are asked when it comes to the Final Four doesn’t matter, because they’re going to be there. All a program can do is assemble the resources needed to maximize their chances of breaking through, which is what Xavier’s worked hard to do over the years.

“The last level [Final Four] is the only thing that’s missing, and clearly they’re here to make that happen,” Miller added. “It’s just, I think, amazing when everybody cooperates and thinks the same, you have some really intelligent people at the top, how great things happen. The benefit in so many cases is the student-athletes, watching their experience and what they become when they leave the school.”

Ranking the Sweet 16 matchups

AP Photo

No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Carolina, Thu. 7:47 p.m.: The luster on this matchup will dull a bit if Kennedy Meeks is actually unable to play, but the Badgers should still get a test from a North Carolina team that still seems to be flying a bit under the radar. I’m high on UNC. We all know how good Marcus Paige is and how is is capable of taking a game over, but UNC is so much more than that this year. It starts with their front line, who can physically overwhelm opponents even if Meeks is unable to go. But with J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry playing better of late, the Heels have gotten enough help on their perimeter to take quite a bit of pressure off of Paige.

The Badgers have not played their best basketball yet in this tournament, and if that continues on Thursday, the Heels will have a real chance to send them back to Madison.

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia, Thu. 9:45 p.m.: Let me preface this by saying that I think Kentucky ends up winning this game. That said, I have a feeling that West Virginia is going to give the Wildcats a fight and will be within striking distance down the stretch. There’s three reasons why:

  • 1. The press. West Virginia’s pressure is different and more aggressive than anything Kentucky has faced this season. The Harrisons aren’t great ball-handlers, and Tyler Ulis is small enough that those traps may overwhelm him.
  • 2. No team coached by Bobby Huggins is ever going to be intimidated. By anyone. And when playing this Kentucky team, that’s half the battle.
  • 3. Huggins has a reputation, and very little of it has to do with his coaching acumen. But Huggs is one of the best at finding a way to put his players in a position to win. Remember the 2010 Elite 8, when a West Virginia team led by Da’Sean Butler beat Kentucky, who had John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson. Can he do it again?

The Mountaineers have the size, depth and athleticism to give Kentucky some trouble, and I think that they will.

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Wichita State, Thu. 7:15 p.m.: The perimeter battle in this game will be unbelievable. Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson vs. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Yes, please. Let’s make some predictions on how they match up, shall we? I think it will be fairly straight forward for the Irish — Jackson on VanVleet, Grant on Baker, etc. — when they’re not in zone. But I think the Shockers mix it up, sliding Tekele Cotton onto Grant and using either Baker or VanVleet on Jackson. In my mind that makes Jackson the x-factor for the Shockers, as he may be the quickest player left in the NCAA tournament and should be able to beat either of the two Wichita State defenders off the bounce.

No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Michigan State, Fri. 10:07 p.m.: The way that Michigan State beat Virginia was to open things up in transition, beating the Cavaliers down the floor and scoring before they could set their vaunted Pack-Line defense. Oklahoma, like Virginia, is elite defensively, meaning that the Spartans will be looking to do the same thing again. That said, Oklahoma likes to get up and down the floor as well, so that could play right into their hands. This game has the most “thrill potential” of any in the Sweet 16.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah, Fri. 9:45 p.m.: I really like this Utah team, but I’m having trouble trying to figure out how they are going to deal with Jahlil Okafor inside. I’m not sure Jakob Poeltl is nearly strong enough to play any real defense against him in the post, and while Dallin Bachynski is probably a better option on that end, Poeltl’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll will draw Okafor out defensively, where he struggles. If Utah is going to have a shot, Delon Wright is going to have to play like an all-american, which he hasn’t done yet this tournament.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 6 Xavier, Thu. 10:17 p.m.: I feel bad for Sean Miller. He had to knock out Ohio State and, Thad Matta, one of his best friends in the business, in the Round of 32. Now he has to play Chris Mack, who was on his staff at Xavier and, obviously, succeeded him as Musketeer head coach.

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA, Fri. 7:15 p.m.: On paper, this seems like it should be close, as the Bruins are one of the most talented 11 seeds that you’ll see in the tournament. But this is the best team that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. The biggest, too, so Tony Parker won’t be making light work of Gonzaga’s front line like he did to UAB. Bryce Alford vs. Kevin Pangos will be fun, but the key here is going to be Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kevon Looney. Whoever gets the best of that matchup wins.

No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 N.C. State, Fri 7:37 p.m.: You know it’s a good Sweet 16 when a game like this is the “worst” matchup. Here’s what makes it intriguing to me: N.C. State is clearly the more talented team, and they might have been the more talented team even if the Cardinals still had Chris Jones on the roster. But the Wolfpack have been anything but consistent this season — hell, this tournament — and they’ll be going up against Rick Pitino, who will have five days to prepare for the game.

Elite 8 Preview: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 11 Dayton

Archie Miler

On Saturday and Sunday, we will be breaking down all eight of the Elite 8 matchups. Here is our look at No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 2 Wisconsin:

WHEN: Saturday, 6:09 p.m. (TBS)

WHERE: FedEx Forum, Memphis (South Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: Billy Donovan has led the Gators to his fourth consecutive Elite 8. But he hasn’t been to a Final Four since he was his second national title back in 2007. This time around, he’ll be going up against a No. 11 seed as a double-digit favorite. It’s time for Donovan — and Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete — to make a Final Four. On the other side of the court, we have Archie Miller, the younger brother of Arizona head coach Sean Miller. Can both brothers make the Final Four? Will Archie get to the Final Four despite coaching at a place like Dayton?

KEY STATS: The bottom line is this: Florida is the No. 2 defense in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings. And when it comes to coaching, it may be even more difficult to build a gameplan around how to beat the Gators. They simply give you so many looks defensively. They can play man or zone, they can press or play in the half court, they can try to force turnovers or focus on preventing offensive rebounds. The bottom line is that Billy Donovan’s club is the best in the business.

KEY PLAYERS: The guys that have made the difference for Dayton through three games in the NCAA tournament aren’t the guys that will get the publicity. it’s not Archie Miller and it’s not Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert. The players to keep an eye on are the forwards for Dayton: Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver. The two of them are a nightmare given then ability to shoot from the perimeter.

POINT SPREAD: Florida (-10.5)


1. Scottie Wilbekin: There isn’t a single player in the country that has consistently proven himself in big situations than Wilbekin has. All he does is hit big shots in clutch moments down the stretch, and nothing that happened against UCLA would prove otherwise.

2. Dayton’s threes: The best way to beat a favorite, especially one that will get as much action as Dayton will on Sunday, is to control the number of threes that they are able to make. Dayton shoots 37.5% from beyond the arc.

3. How long will Dayton hang around?: I hate phrasing it like that, but the bottom line is that the Flyers really don’t have any business competing with Florida, who is more or less the best team in the country at this point in the season. I’m a huge Archie Miller fan and I expect Florida to give the Flyers a fight, but that doesn’t mean that this group will be able to pull off the upset.