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January 30, 2009

Xavier no longer content with cracking top 10

CINCINNATI Xavier junior center Jason Love remembers a time earlier in his career when the Musketeers would celebrate whenever they cracked the national rankings.

That era has ended.

"In the locker room, there's really no jumping for joy that we're in the top 10," Love said this week after Xavier earned the No. 10 spot in each of the major national polls. "That's where we strive to be. That's where we expect to be."

Maybe it's time for the rest of the nation also to expect this kind of performance from Xavier.

The Musketeers (18-2, 6-0 Atlantic 10) failed to appear in the preseason rankings this season despite reaching a regional final last season. It was their second Elite Eight in five seasons, an accomplishment matched by only eight other programs in the nation. Xavier has proved the skeptics wrong and carries a nine-game winning streak into Saturday's game with Massachusetts.

"The history of success this program has had just speaks for itself," Love said. "The Big East and the ACC can have all that stuff. At Xavier here, we're just focused on winning games and championships. The rest will take care of itself."

They certainly have won plenty of games. Barring a monumental collapse, Xavier will earn at least 20 wins for the 12th time in 13 seasons. The Musketeers have reached that plateau 21 times over the past 26 seasons. They also have won quite a few championships: Xavier is seeking its third consecutive Atlantic 10 regular-season title and its fourth conference tournament crown in eight seasons.

Along the way, the Musketeers have overcome the type of upheaval that could bring down a lesser program.

Pete Gillen led Xavier to prominence in the 1980s before heading to Providence. The late Skip Prosser enjoyed similar success until he moved to Wake Forest. Thad Matta followed Prosser before parlaying his success into an offer from Ohio State. Sean Miller may end up as Xavier's most successful coach.

Miller, a former Matta assistant, is in his fifth season and owns a 111-41 record; his victory total is third in school history. Miller's success has made him one of the nation's hottest coaching commodities, though Xavier attempted to ward off potential poachers by signing him to a 10-year contract extension last April.

In select company
Xavier advanced to a regional final in 2004 and 2008 to become one of only nine schools to reach the Elite Eight multiple times in the past five seasons. Here's a look at the nine:
Team Elite Eights
Kansas3 (2004, '07, '08)
Memphis3 (2006, '07, '08)
North Carolina3 (2005, '07, '08)
UCLA3 (2006, '07, '08)
Connecticut2 (2004, '06)
Florida2 (2006, '07)
Louisville2 (2005, '08)
Texas2 (2006, '08)
Xavier2 (2004, '08)
March is Miller time
Although Xavier hasn't reached the Final Four, the Musketeers' recent track record suggests they perform well down the stretch. Here's a look at the teams with the top three records in March since current coach Sean Miller joined the Musketeers' staff as an assistant in the 2001-02 season.
Team Record Pct.
Kansas47-10.825
Xavier35-12.745
Memphis43-15.741
Source: Xavier sports information department
Miller has helped Xavier adapt to plenty of roster turnover. Xavier reached a regional final last season despite losing three senior starters from the previous season. This season, the Musketeers again have withstood the loss of three starters and two of their top three scorers.

Xavier has continued to succeed by relying on the same motto that helped crosstown rival Cincinnati overcome all kinds of quarterback injuries to win the Big East football title this past season: Next man in.

"That's basically the thing we've adopted," senior forward C.J. Anderson said. "Like [Miller] says, there could be a time when someone gets hurt in practice. He can't call a school and say, 'Well, so-and-so was hurt, so can we reschedule the game?' It's basically [if] someone's down or guys graduate or whatever, it's the next man in, so you've got to step up, do your job and help the team win games. That's what's going on."

Miller has helped Xavier deal with adversity by utilizing a rotation that makes his team one of the deepest in the nation each season.

Junior forward Derrick Brown is Xavier's leading scorer, but he averages only 13.6 points per game. The Musketeers have nine players scoring at least 4.3 points per game and playing at least 12 minutes per game. Xavier, No. 5 North Carolina and No. 12 Clemson are the only teams in The Associated Press poll that don't have a single player averaging at least 30 minutes per game.

Miller wouldn't have it any other way. The Musketeers reached the regional final last year with nobody averaging more than 12.4 points and with only guard Drew Lavender averaging more than 30 minutes.

"On any given night, different players can step up and help, and you're not just wearing down your mainstays," Miller said. "It's too long of a season. The competition is too great to just keep relying night-in, day-in, day-out, game-in, game-out on those same guys. It helps them tremendously when others around them can take that burden, especially on offense."

The deep rotation has helped the Musketeers stay fresh enough to deliver the tenacious defense that has become a staple during Miller's regime. Xavier entered the week ranked seventh in the nation in field-goal percentage defense. Duke made 52.5 percent of its shots in an 82-64 victory over Xavier on Dec. 20, but nobody else has shot better than 42 percent against the Musketeers this season.

While the Musketeers traditionally rely on a lockdown perimeter defender, their defense relies on toughness in the paint this season. Brown, Love, Tulsa transfer Jamel McLean and 7-foot freshman Kenny Frease give Xavier four players in its rotation who stand at least 6-8. Virginia Tech, Miami University and Duke are the only teams to outrebound Xavier this season.

"This is the most physical team we've played so far," LSU guard Marcus Thornton said Saturday after his team's 80-70 home loss to the Musketeers. "They were big and strong in every position."

Xavier's win gave it one more impressive non-conference victory to go along with early season triumphs over Missouri, Virginia Tech, Memphis and Cincinnati. And it has raised hope that the Musketeers can match or even exceed their accomplishments from last season.

"That next step is really a big dream," Miller said. "It's a big stage. From doing what we've done, what would the next step be? Well, the next step would be to be able to have that team that can make a run in the tournament and get into a Final Four or to have a season like we did a year ago."

Now that would give the Musketeers reason to jump for joy.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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