The day after Xavier was knocked out of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament semifinals on March 13, assistant coach James Whitford booked a $1,300 plane ticket to Tampa to scout a recruit the next day. This might seem unrelated to the Musketeers' eventual advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, but according to coach Sean Miller, "It means everything."
Whitford, who previously coached at mid-major Miami (Ohio), says, "[At Miami] I would have had to make several connections to save money. Here I saved three hours of flying time, [which is] three hours more I can spend with the recruit."
Successful recruiting has been key for Xavier, which can make the case that it -- and not Gonzaga, or even Memphis -- is the king of the non-BCS-conference mid-majors. (The Musketeers so hate the term that they turned down an award last year because it was for Mid-Major Player of the Week, but that's life in the A-10.) Xavier has made it into the NCAA tournament in eight of the last nine years, and if it can defeat top-seeded Pittsburgh in Boston on Friday, it will have reached its third Elite Eight in six seasons.
"We're built to last," Miller said after Xavier beat Wisconsin 60-49 in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday. "People expected us to disappear, but they don't know what's gone into getting the program to this point. We're not going away."
"It's not one thing, but many little things that have happened over the years that have allowed success to breed here," says Mike Bobinski, the athletic director at Xavier, which, like Gonzaga, is a small (6,700 students) Jesuit school. "We made a commitment to use basketball to build up the image of the university, and we've had to renew that commitment many times."
The most visible sign of the school's all-in fervor is the Cintas Center, the 10,250-seat, $46 million arena that opened on campus in 2000. "It puts us on par with so many programs that we weren't on par with before," says Miller. "People ask: Can you win a national championship at Xavier? I think we've shown that we can compete with the teams that are winning national championships."
Miller has changed Xavier from the kind of pressing team that was favored by his predecessors, Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser, to a stingy, half-court defensive outfit. The Musketeers held Portland State to 14 points below its season's average in the first round and Wisconsin to 15 points below its average in round 2. And they're unlikely to suffer a talent drop-off when seniors B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson depart. Freshman center Kenny Frease came off the bench to score seven points with four rebounds and two blocks in 18 minutes on Sunday. The 7-footer from Massillon, Ohio, was among the most recruited big men in the country last year, with offers from Kentucky, Indiana and Notre Dame. "I visited all those schools," Frease says, "and in the end I realized that Xavier was as big-time as any of them."