NEW YORK — Three of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament have earned that designation before under their current coaches. For them, March Madness is where the pressure to fulfill outsize expectations first kick in.
For Xavier and Coach Chris Mack, the start of the tournament doubles as the end of a long ascent.
The Musketeers are a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. It comes at the end of the season in which they won the Big East regular season title, becoming the first team other than Villanova to do so since Xavier joined the conference in 2013. Mack, 48, was voted Big East coach of the year. This season, he set the career wins record for a program that has grown since the 1980s thanks to an unbroken streak of hiring up-and-coming coaches who have won at the Cincinnati school — then moved on to win at bigger programs.
Which might cause one to wonder: Could the start of the tournament be the last days of an era?
“It’s a good question to ask,” said Pete Gillen, the former leader in coaching victories at Xavier who now works as an analyst for CBS Sports Network. “And at this point, with the success they’ve had with so many coaches, I don’t think it’s a negative on Xavier.”
The start of the NCAA tournament is also the start of college basketball’s hiring and firing cycle. Two high-profile jobs came open last week when Pittsburgh fired Kevin Stallings and Connecticut parted ways with Kevin Ollie; at Louisville, interim head coach David Padgett, at just 33 years old, is far from a lock to get the job on a permanent basis. It’s natural that Mack, for the second year in a row, will be considered one of the more logical options to fill one of those slots.
Last year, his name was thrown around for openings at Ohio State and Indiana. So far this season, he has been connected to the potential job at Louisville.
Besides that, Xavier has quite a history with good coaches moving on.
Gillen won 202 games from 1985 to 1994 and took Xavier to the NCAA tournament seven times before he left for Providence and then Virginia. He was succeeded at the Jesuit university in Cincinnati by Skip Prosser, who won at least 21 games in five of six seasons, then moved to Wake Forest. Thad Matta claimed three consecutive 26-win seasons capped by an appearance in the Elite Eight before Ohio State came calling. Sean Miller, Mack’s immediate predecessor, chalked up 120 wins and an Elite Eight appearance in five seasons, then departed for Arizona.
“The thing about that job is the advantage is you have a small school with a family-type atmosphere, but you play against the big guys,” Gillen said. “For certain people, that’s a great mix. For others, it’s a chance to prove yourself.
Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati and played at Xavier, said last week at the Big East tournament in New York that he felt far from having reached the hilltop with the Musketeers, despite his record success at Xavier.
Those closest to him believe his deep connection to school and city separate him from the coaches who came before. Associate head coach Travis Steele, who has been with Mack for all of his nine seasons as Xavier’s head coach, believes Mack wants to be Xavier’s version of what Mark Few is at Gonzaga or Jay Wright is at Villanova — a local product who turns a coaching job into a career.
“I think it’s more about families,” Steele said. “He’s born and raised in Cincinnati. His mom and dad go to every radio show. They’re at all the games. Look, he’s got three kids . . . they can see their grandparents. His wife’s parents live in Louisville, as well, 90 minutes away. So it’s families and relationships at Xavier and in the community. It’s where he’s from. He takes a lot of pride in it.
“He is Xavier. What the university stands for, we hope what our team stands for, and what we stand for, it all aligns.”
Mack also occupies a different job than his predecessors, because the Musketeers compete in the Big East, a proven high-major conference that produced a national champion in 2016. Steele, a primary recruiter for the program, says high school recruits are more aware of Xavier than they have ever been. The team’s facilities are modern.
“It’s a world of difference. It’s night and day,” Gillen said. “It was the little train that could. Now it’s the pretty big train that can. Xavier has raised up their program to a level now where, all right, it’s certainly not Michigan State, Ohio State or Louisville, but they can compete with them. They’re ahead of them right now, as far as rankings go.”
Where Xavier can’t compete is in coaching salaries. In USA Today’s most recent coaching salaries database, Mack’s paycheck ranks 55th in the nation at just under $1.7 million. Even Wright at Villanova, who makes just more than $2.5 million per year as the highest-paid Big East coach on USA Today’s list, is estimated to be the 24th-highest-paid coach in the nation.
But Gillen, like Steele, doesn’t think Mack is on his way out at Xavier. If Mack were to leave, Gillen believes it says more about the individual than it does about Xavier’s status as a program or the quality of the job.
“If he does go, it just shows that people just want a new challenge,” Gillen said. “They want a big state university, they want big-time other sports with them to help them recruit, but I think he could have been Ohio State’s coach. I think he could have been at Indiana. I mean, those are two of the top 10 or 12 programs in the country.”
As for Mack, he has plenty left to achieve professionally at Xavier, beginning with the NCAA tournament, in which the Musketeers have never made it past a region final. Beyond that, Steele said the coaches talk about knocking Villanova off its pedestal in the Big East and making Xavier the standard-bearer.
History aside, Mack made it clear at the Big East tournament: He feels he has unfinished business at Xavier.
“The mountaintop for us was winning the Big East regular season championship,” Mack said. “And now we’ve got hopefully some more mountains to climb.”
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