Chris Mack is the only Xavier coach to lead the Musketeers to three Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Plowing through the nonconference season undefeated wasn’t a possibility Xavier coach Chris Mack considered while creating a schedule that featured four opponents in the top 50 of the Pomeroy Ratings.
Yet that’s where the Musketeers sit entering Thursday afternoon's Big East opener at No. 15 Villanova. They delivered a furious comeback to erase a 15-point second-half deficit at Wake Forest on Tuesday and extended the best start in school history to 12-0.
“When you looked down the schedule when we started the thing, we knew we had some humongous challenges on our plate,” Mack said following the 78-70 win over the Demon Deacons. “The growth of this team from last year is amazing and it’s mostly seen in practice.”
Convincing victories over Michigan, Dayton, Southern Cal and Cincinnati have launched Xavier to a No. 6 ranking in both the AP and USA Today coaches poll. It’s the loftiest poll perch ever for a program that’s won 20 games in all but two seasons since 1996-97. The Musketeers are also one of eight teams to reach the Sweet 16 in five of the last eight seasons.
Mack, in his seventh year, is the only Xavier coach with three Sweet 16s on his resume. That’s quite the accomplishment considering the impressive list of coaches who preceded him: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and Sean Miller.
Wake Forest’s second-year coach, Danny Manning, aims to build his program into such a consistent winner.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country. They’re tough. They’re hardnosed, they compete,” a disappointed Manning said after his team was outscored 50-27 in the second half. "Chris has done a remarkable job in scheduling the games he’s scheduling and putting those guys into the position to be successful. They’re going to be one of the better teams over the course of the year because they’ve been battle tested and they’re tough.”
The hot start and promising season come at an ideal time for Xavier as it continues making the transition from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East. Phase one of renovations their on-campus Cintas Center are underway. A new student-athlete academic center is complete (the last 96 Musketeers who played as seniors have graduated), construction begins this month on a new strength and conditioning center, followed by a renovated sports medicine complex.
Recently released phase two plans include multiple enhancements to the gameday experience in the Cintas Center such as hospitality lounges, additional courtside seating and a slight bump in overall capacity to 10,350 fans. Filling the arena won’t be a problem, as the Musketeers have ranked top 50 nationally in attendance the last two seasons, averaging approximately 10,000 per game.
Beating a hungry Wake team in the Musketeers’ last game before holiday break revealed resiliency in the face of adversity. Such characteristics have become commonplace under Mack, although this could be his toughest, if not most talented, team yet.
Five Xavier players average in double figures, led by 6-6 sophomore Trevon Bluiett, who takes 26.1 percent of the shots and has an offensive rating of 114.3. He’s averaging a team-high 14.7 points and hitting 45 percent of 3-point attempts.
Edmond Sumner, an extremely athletic 6-6 wing, is healthy and producing 11.7 points per game. He was shut down last season after six games as a freshman due to medical reasons.
The Musketeers attack the basket, scoring a quarter of their points at the free throw line (13th in the nation) because they knock down 73.4 percent of their attempts.
And, this is Mack’s best offensive rebounding team, snaring 39 percent of its missed shots (17th in the nation).
It all adds up to a team that’s in the top 30 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. That’s the statistical profile of a legitimate national championship contender. The only other Xavier team to finish the season top 30 on both ends of the floor was the 2003-04 Thad Matta coached team. Those Musketeers won the Atlantic 10 tournament title and reached the Elite 8.
Xavier has every reason to believe it can enjoy similar success, and by the time No. 9 Butler visits on Saturday should have a firm handle on where it stands in the national picture.
“We continue to learn about ourselves. It’s still early,” Mack said following the Wake win. “I do like the maturity of our team. I think we are tough-minded. We better be, we have some tough opponents coming up.”