Chris Mack flashed a stare that could bend a fork. Hang around Xavier basketball long enough this time of year, you'll recognize it. After the Musketeers beat Pitt Sunday, to advance to their third consecutive Sweet 16, a reporter prefaced a question, "As a mid-major program ...''
Mack is a first-year head coach, but he has the drill down. Only two days earlier, he'd said, "We're tired of being the little engine that could'' in response to an inane column in a Minneapolis newspaper.
Five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and nine in 10 years; two Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s in the last eight years. A national player of the year (David West), a roster of current and former NBA players.
Xavier doesn't crash the party. Xavier has a standing invitation. And yet ...
The mid-major thing persists like a 7-footer in the lane.
Tarzan still gets the Jane treatment. It's not a slap in the face anymore, so much as a pat on the head. Which is worse: Being smacked or patronized?
"We win a lot and we have for awhile,'' says Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, "and for whatever reason, we get the same question every year. Does someone have attention deficit or something?''
Is frustration a verb?
Mack did his best to keep his head from exploding. He played at Xavier when Xavier was a mid-major. That was 18 years ago. He responded that Xavier travels in style, recruits in private planes and plays in an arena that is very new and very full, almost all the time. And well, you know, Xavier wins a little. "We don't take a back seat to anyone,'' he said.
The Musketeers win at everything but the perception game, where they're batting about .500. It's been a few years since anyone referred to the school as Eggs-avier ("Go, you Eggmen!'') and a few more since the Musketeers stripped the epithet Eggs-avier of Ohio from their persona.
The Musketeers play Kansas State on Thursday night in Salt Lake City. Ironically, Butler is here as well, playing Syracuse. It's a real mid-major-fest in the West. Between them, Xavier and Butler only have played in seven Sweet 16s in the last eight years. Xavier's three-peat is a feat equaled only by Michigan State.
And yet, the questions persist. They've become a major pain.
What's a mid-major? And what difference does it make if you're seen as one?
It's a construct of lazy media, and of the big six football conferences, who enjoy the autocratic way the term helps maintain their money, power and influence. "It's based on the BCS deal, absolutely,'' says Bobinski.
Except this isn't football. The NCAA actually permits a few of its lesser-publicized basketball lights to play in a tournament that decides a winner without the help of polls. Imagine that.
"College basketball is performance-based,'' says Bobinski, who is also a member of the tournament selection committee. "The quote-unquote major conferences try to use it against us. Once in awhile it works.''
But not much. Xavier's players flew close to 30 round-trip charters this year. That's major to anyone who has ever killed two hours in a security line. Mack gets a private plane to recruit, anytime he wants. That's Calipari-esque major.
Jordan Crawford is major. He's a Sporting News All-America. He scored 55 points in the two wins last weekend, on an assortment of long balls and lane jitterbugs that would pass the audition on Dancing With The Stars.
Terrell Holloway is major, a blooming sophomore point guard who starred in Xavier's win Sunday over favored Pitt. Kenny Frease is major. He's 7-feet tall. If he had a neck, he'd be 7-foot-4. Each player had offers from Big Ten schools. Kentucky courted Holloway; Notre Dame wanted Frease.
Xavier even has a major nun, Sister Rose Ann Fleming, whose academic advising is the stuff of legend on campus. Recently discovered by the New York Times and the morning TV shows, Sister Rose works best at about 7 a.m., banging on the doors of basketball players needing a little extra learning time.
Xavier wasn't always major. For a very long time, Xavier was mid-major state of the art. The Musketeers played in the Midwestern Community College, er, Midwestern Collegiate Conference. Until about a decade ago, its home court was Cincinnati Gardens, a delightful old silo that housed both Oscar Robertson and livestock shows. When Xavier coaches brought in recruits, the kids could sense the history and smell it.
The landlord didn't always heat the building, either. A former point guard named Jamal Walker sometimes practiced while wearing gloves.
Pete Gillen relished the David role. The former Xavier coach called himself Joe Bag-O-Doughnuts. He'd go over a scouting report, for a school you couldn't find with a GPS, and he'd wonder aloud how Eggs-avier of Ohio would stand a chance. Gillen was Lou Holtz, mid-major division.
Gillen's teams would breeze through their MCC schedule, acquire a 13th or 14th seed and lose a close, first-round NCAA tournament game. They couldn't schedule up, even if they wanted to, because Gillen refused to play 2-for-1s with the big boys. Xavier was just small enough not to be considered "an acceptable loss'' by the bigs.
The Musketeers were living the mid-major dream. A little house in the 'burbs, a color TV, two cars out front, a charcoal grill on the deck out back.
That was a long time ago.
Now, they've paid one former coach, Sean Miller, a million a year. They fly charters. Mack can hop on a plane after practice, take in a high school game a three-hour drive away, and be back in time to make a practice plan for the next day. The Musketeers play in a 10,500-seat, on-campus gym that sells out routinely. They graduate all their seniors.
Their house is up the hill. It has a pool. Xavier is on a major roll.
Of course, to some, it'd be much better being major. Like, say, DePaul. Or Northwestern or Washington State. Pick a major, football-playing basketball non-factor.
Bobinski's term on the selection committee has given him reason to believe in the relative meritocracy of the Madness. "Who did you beat, where did you beat them, how many games did you win?'' Bobinski says. "Are you good enough? That's what we focus on. The mid-major stuff tires you. I [understood] it the first couple times around. But now?''
Now, it's a dead issue. Or should be. Little Xavier plays big Kansas State Thursday night. Apparently, the Musketeers will show up. They might even win. Joe Bag-O-Doughnuts doesn't live here anymore. And Chris Mack's patience is wearing thin.