Last year Chris Mack led Xavier’s men’s basketball team to a record-breaking season, studded with its highest poll rankings and best NCAA tournament seed in program history. He earned National Coach of the Year honors from three outlets.
But this is his best coaching performance yet.
A season of adversity left Xavier on the NCAA tournament bubble just two weeks ago, and now it’s back in the Sweet 16 for the eighth time in program history. The 11th-seeded Musketeers man-handled No. 3 seed Florida State in a 91-66 second-round victory Saturday in Orlando to clinch a spot opposite Sean Miller and No. 2 seed Arizona in San Jose.
Mack, who improved to 185-90 with the victory, had a great team – on paper – last June. Six-foot-eight Eddie Ekiyor practiced with XU the prior semester and was poised to help fill some of its frontcourt vacancies. RaShid Gaston, too, was waiting in the wings after practicing with Xavier all season per NCAA transfer rules.
With Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett and Myles Davis as key veterans and plenty of upside from freshmen Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones, the team looked stacked and formidable.
Bit by bit, the roster crumbled.
Ekiyor left the university after battling homesickness and enrolled at a Canadian college. Mack and his staff scrambled to fill his spot, identifying a gem in Malcolm Bernard. The grad transfer made one of his first public appearances with the team over the summer during its annual softball game at Hayden Field.
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Months later, Davis became embroiled in legal troubles and was indefinitely suspended.
All those things happened before Xavier, ranked a school-record seventh in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, ever played a game.
The rest of the story is familiar for Xavier fans. Davis returned to the team for only three games after first semester. Sumner tore his ACL. Bluiett sprained his ankle and missed two games. The team slumped heavily late in the season when it should have been peaking, dropping six straight for the first time since 1982.
After the Florida State win, Mack was asked if he thought this was the team he had all along. His answer was simple: No.
“I told (players) out in the real world life is going to hand you lemons, and you can pout about it (or) figure out how to make lemonade,” Mack said. “Our guys, despite all the adversity they've been hit with and the social media that tells them how bad they are and how poor they are, they stayed with it, and they believed in themselves and our coaching staff.
"It’s a credit to them, and I’m just really proud of them.”
Mack has never been one to bask in praise or publicly address personal accolades, so it’s no surprise he didn’t discuss his role in the season-changing comeback.
The truth is, Xavier teams have always improved under Mack, and they've usually done so at opportune times. The Musketeers’ ascent this season has been delayed by their skid, but their ability to play without Sumner – a big credit to Goodin – and adapt to Bluiett’s absences has made them even stronger.
Now it’s all coming together for Xavier (23-13). Mack has molded the current roster into a disciplined, hungry and tough-minded unit.
“That's one of the reasons I love this team, because all the way down the line everybody’s tough,” junior guard J.P. Macura said after the Florida State win. “Everybody loves to win and play hard, and I think that we showed that this past month. I'm just excited for everybody in this program that we're moving forward.”
Xavier hasn’t been perfect (turnovers have been a problem) but it’s motivated by Bernard and Gaston, playing for the first time on the big stage, and a cast of players that genuinely enjoy each other.
By virtue of the Big East’s elite make-up and Xavier’s ability to find its way out of a confidence-shaking skid, Mack has taken a team outsiders considered down-and-out to familiar heights. Days from now, the Musketeers will play in the program’s sixth Sweet 16 in 10 years.
A masterful job, indeed.