Wednesday November 18th, 2009

This one's for anyone who refers to Xavier University as "Eggs-avier'' or, come on, "Eggs-avier of Ohio'' when crunching a bracket in March. The other Xavier is in New Orleans. Fine institution. Not basketball-relevant. Eggs-avier of Louisiana.

This one's for people who lob the term "mid-major'' at XU like a hand grenade in a men's room, who couldn't tell you where XU is if you gave them a Rand McNally and a GPS. It's especially for those who refer to the Musketeers as "the Gonzaga of the East.'' Xavier: Isn't that where good coaches go to leave?

This one's for you.

(You know who you are.)

When asked if anyone still called Xavier the Gonzaga of the East' Chris Mack quickly answered, "West Coast people." Mack is the newest basketball coach at Xavier (4,200 undergrads, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45207-7530).

Mack hasn't had time to personalize his office, perched like an aerie atop the basketball court at Xavier's 10,250-seat Cintas Center. The late Skip Prosser filled the space with Irish literature and favorite quotations. Sean Miller had it looking like a bank executive's den. Mack has a few bobbleheads, leaning on a windowsill.

"Two David Wests, a [Justin] Doellman, a James Posey, a Lionel Chalmers,'' Mack says, shrugging at the mention of former Xavier stars. "Pretty much the same as when I took over.''

When you are at the center of a machine and newly charged with keeping it fed, you can't be taking time jazzing the walls. Mack got the Xavier job last April, when Miller left for Arizona. Miller got it when Thad Matta left for Ohio State. Matta arrived when Prosser departed for Wake Forest. Prosser inherited it from Pete Gillen. And so on.

Xavier just hums: Nine NCAA tournaments in the last 10 years, a couple Elite Eights, a No. 20 ranking in Forbes magazine's list of most valuable college basketball programs. Six players drafted in the last decade. All 76 seniors have graduated since 1986.

Xavier has reached program status in basketball. It's not that hiring the right coach doesn't matter. "We could turn this thing upside down in a hurry with the wrong person,'' says athletic director Mike Bobinski. It's that the machinery is in place, regardless.

Xavier decided 25 years ago that it would dance to the beat of a basketball. The school has used hoops as a coast-to-coast billboard to attract students and money. As school president Fr. Michael Graham puts it, "The money we pay our basketball coaches should be billed to our marketing department.''

Graham has game. He grew up in Iowa, rooting for the Hawkeyes. He did doctoral work at Georgetown in the early 80s, when Patrick Ewing terrified people as a Hoya. Graham even worked the scorer's table for a winter, where his most vivid memory was of watching then-Boston College coach Gary Williams lunge at the table after what Williams perceived as a timekeeper's mistake.

"I ran the possession arrow. I got a striped shirt out of the deal,'' Graham says. "I should have kept it. It would have been fun at Halloween.''

Graham has made sure basketball gets what it needs, while also keeping it tamed. The NCAA cops don't walk a beat at Xavier. "I'd be a whole lot less interested in a basketball program that brought home the trophies but left behind the wreckage,'' says Graham. "We've been doing a good job staying true to who we are.''

That'd be a perpetual tournament guest, with annual appeal as a sexy Sweet 16 pick. How? Xavier spends money, on its coaches (Miller was making $1 million when he left, the most in the A-10) and on its recruiting and travel. For the last five years, XU coaches have had access to private planes for recruiting trips.

"We can leave our practice and lots of times, be at a (high school) game in an hour,'' Mack says. "We make sure the recruits know how we got there. They feel like they're being recruited by a legitimate top 25 program.''

Xavier spit-shines its home gym, the perpetually sold-out Cintas Center, opened in 2000. A $2 million scoreboard renovation is set for next spring, "bought and paid for,'' says Bobinski. "We never want to allow a young person to say, 'Xavier doesn't measure up'.''

The Musketeers don't miss the smallest marketing trick. Beginning last year, the media guide was presented horizontally, not vertically. It demands attention on a bookshelf or in a pile on the floor. While other schools were offering bobbleheads to promote their All-America candidates, Xavier went with a nesting doll for former player and world traveler Romain Sato.

Basketball, men's and women's, accounts for 97 percent of Xavier's athletic budget. It also works in the grander scheme. "We want recognition outside the region: the Northeast, D.C., Philly, even out West a little,'' says Bobinski. "Our profile has allowed us to expand our student recruiting base.''

Ten years ago, Xavier had 3,249 applicants for just under 800 spots in its freshman class; this fall, the numbers were 7,152 and 1,174. The school is in the midst of a $200 million capital improvement campaign. Without basketball, "We'd be running a $125 million campaign,'' says Graham.

You can do this in college basketball, in way you never could in football. You, too, can be Xavier, a little school in a big city with a bigger rival (the University of Cincinnati) and with competition from professional sports. All you need is an administration that uses basketball as a billboard, a palace of a gym to play in and a recruiting budget the envy of the rest of the Atlantic 10.

The Musketeers improved to 2-0 on Tuesday night, with a 101-57 rout of Bowling Green during which sophomore guard Jordan Crawford had 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists. You might recall Crawford. He dunked on LeBron James in a summer league game.

The machine hums, mindful of new coaches but not beholden to them. Chris Mack apologizes for the office decor. "Maybe I'll put up a collage of Xavier basketball,'' he suggests.

Mack grew up in Cincinnati, went to Xavier games as a kid, left town reluctantly when Gillen didn't offer him a scholarship, then transferred home two year later. He'll take your decorating suggestions now. "Greatest hits, you know?'' Mack offers. "Maybe stuff from the tournament.''

Collecting it all wouldn't be hard. Displaying it might be. Wall space is not unlimited.

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