All about the non-Big Six: X factors
One of the most important lessons the late Skip Prosser taught coaching protégé Chris Mack involved non-conference scheduling.
“He always used to say, ‘You don’t sharpen your teeth by eating oatmeal,’” said Mack, Xavier’s second-year coach. “He was right. We certainly haven’t had any oatmeal this year.
“We’ve played some really good teams in some hostile environments, and we’re better for it.”
With an 8-5 record, the Musketeers were an afterthought in the minds of most college basketball analysts when they opened Atlantic 10 play earlier this month. But just as it does every year, Xavier has re-established itself as one of the top non-Big Six schools in the country by winning all of its league games to date.
Saturday’s 85-62 road victory over a respectable Richmond squad improved the Musketeers’ record to 15-5 overall and 7-0 in Atlantic 10 play. Duquesne (6-0) is the only other school that has yet to lose a conference game.
“We have very competitive kids,” Mack said by phone after Saturday’s win. “We have kids that are used to winning, kids that have been on championship teams and have gone deep into the NCAA tournament. For most of those guys it’s unacceptable to be beaten down and to lose.”
Xavier has won four straight Atlantic 10 titles and has advanced to either the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons.
The Musketeers finished 26-9 during Mack’s first season in 2009-10. Ironically, that team went 8-5 in non-conference play, too, with losses to schools such as Baylor and Marquette. This season’s setbacks came against Florida, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Old Dominion and Miami (Ohio).
“We have a no excuses type of mentality,” said Mack, a former Xavier player. “When we lose we’re going to learn from a loss. When we win we’re going to worry about preparing for the next practice and the next game.
“We tried to do that when we were supposedly a bad team. Now we’re trying to do it when we’re supposedly a good team.”
Make no mistake, the Musketeers are salty.
Junior Tu Holloway averages 20.5 points and has scored 21 or more points in his last five games. The 6-foot Holloway had 33 points against Richmond on Saturday, when he was 17-of-17 from the foul line. Holloway is one of 20 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top point guard.
Mack also praised the play of guard Mark Lyons, who ranks second on the team with a 13.2-point scoring average. And the coach said forwards Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean comprise “the most formidable frontcourt in our conference.”
Even more impressive is that Xavier is having success despite a series of setbacks that would’ve spelled doom for most teams.
Mack was counting on freshman Justin Martin to make an impact at forward, but he was declared ineligible before the season. Xavier took another hit when junior guard Brad Redford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. As if that wasn’t enough, freshman Jay Canty – the Musketeers’ only true perimeter sub – suffered a stress fracture before the start of conference play. He hasn’t seen the court since Dec. 28.
“Players have been asked to play out of position,” Mack said, “and some guys have been asked to produce more than they have in previous years. But it happens all around in college basketball. We didn’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Competitive as the Atlantic 10 may be, Xavier appears to have inside track on winning a fifth straight conference title. Mack’s squad has already defeated Richmond, Rhode Island, Temple and Massachusetts, which are ranked just below the Musketeers in the standings.
A Feb. 13 game at Duquesne is obviously huge, but Mack likes the way his team is playing.
“Our kids handled adversity well,” he said. “Now we’ll see how our younger players will handle success. Nothing is ever final. We have to continue to progress.
“Every year in college basketball, a team gets on a roll and then the wheels fall off. I don’t foresee that happening with our guys.”
(Last week’s rank in parenthesis)
1. BYU (20-2, 6-1) – Jimmer Fredette had 32 points and was 6-of-9 from 3-point range in Saturday’s loss to New Mexico. (2)
3. Xavier (15-5, 7-0) – Four of the Musketeers’ next five games are on the road. (6)
4. St. Mary’s (18-4, 6-1) – The Gaels have lost two of their last three games by an average of 17 points. (4)
6. Virginia Commonwealth (18-5, 10-1) – The Rams are hoping to return to the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years. (8)
7. Utah State (20-2, 9-0) – It’s too bad there aren’t more teams in the WAC to challenge the Aggies. (5)
8. UNLV (16-5, 4-3) – The Runnin’ Rebels play at BYU on Saturday. (10)
9. Missouri State (17-4, 9-1) – Kyle Weems averages a team-high 16.5 points. (NR)
10. UAB (15-5, 5-2) – Aaron Johnson ranks third in the nation in assists with 7.5 per game. (NR)
Valparaiso – At 8-2, the Crusaders are a half-game behind Cleveland State (9-2) in the Horizon League standings following Saturday’s 85-79 overtime win against Butler. Brandon Wood is averaging a team-high 16 points for Homer Drew’s squad, while Cory Johnson chips in 15.8.
West Coast Conference – Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have been strong for years, but surging programs such as Portland, Santa Clara and San Francisco are making the league race much more interesting. Coaches Eric Reveno, Kerry Keating and Rex Walters are doing an outstanding job at each of those programs.
Marshall – The Thundering Herd are one of the toughest teams in the country to figure. They followed up a stunning non-conference victory over West Virginia by losing back-to-back games against East Carolina and UAB. But Marshall rebounded Saturday with an 85-70 victory over a Memphis squad that had defeated the Herd by 16 points two weeks earlier. Marshall is 14-7 overall and 2-4 in Conference USA.
Letdown games – BYU and St. Mary’s both experienced them Saturday. The Cougars followed up Wednesday’s victory over previously unbeaten San Diego State with a road loss to New Mexico. St. Mary’s pulled off a historic road win by defeating Gonzaga on a last-second shot Thursday before being upset in a 15-point loss at Portland.
Cornell – Remember the Big Red, the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season by defeating Temple and Wisconsin before losing to No. 1 seed Kentucky? Let’s just say they didn’t exactly build on that success. Cornell is 4-14 overall and 0-4 in Ivy League play.
Gonzaga’s WCC title streak – Even though there’s still a lot of basketball to be played, it seems unlikely that the Zags’ streak of 10 straight conference championships will remain intact following Thursday’s home loss to St. Mary’s. Gonzaga now has three league losses and St. Mary’s only has one. And Gonzaga still has to play St. Mary’s in Moraga.
THREE TO WATCH
Northern Iowa at Missouri State, Sunday – A victory would put Northern Iowa back into the Missouri Valley championship hunt. The Panthers are 7-3 and Missouri State is 9-1.
San Diego State at Colorado State, Wednesday – They may not be as good as BYU, but the Rams are more than capable of upsetting San Diego State.
Valparaiso at Cleveland State, Thursday – Imagine that: A must-see Horizon League game that doesn’t involve Butler.