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.”

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.