March 27, 2017

CINCINNATI (AP) Xavier coach Chris Mack spent a few extra seconds congratulating Mark Few after his Gonzaga team had reached the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Gonzaga's 83-59 win in the Elite Eight on Saturday marked yet another near miss for the Musketeers. They've reached the Elite Eight three times and lost all three times.

That last step is a big one.

''It's a doozy,'' Mack said. ''Don't act like it comes around all the time. I know I joked about it the other day, but for coach Few to even answer a question about a monkey on his back ... That's why I took so long in the handshake line, to talk to him because he's a friend of mine.''

Xavier (24-14) will return the core of a team that went farther than expected in the tournament after pulling out of its deepest slump in 35 years. The Musketeers will again be one of the favorites in the Big East, which got seven of its 10 teams into the NCAA Tournament.

Mack did some of his best coaching in his eighth season leading Xavier. The Musketeers lost three key players within a few weeks at midseason, forcing Mack to reinvent his team repeatedly. Xavier lost six games in a row - its longest slump in 35 years - but Mack pulled it together by tournament time.

''With social media and everybody having an opinion can really beat guys down,'' Mack said. ''And their refusal to get beat down and to continue to believe in me, our coaching staff and, most importantly, one another allowed us to get to this point.''

Mack's name gets raised in questions about job openings at bigger schools, but he's happy coaching in his hometown, at his alma mater, in one of the top basketball conferences in the country - so long as they want to keep him.

''I don't think there's any coach in the NBA, in college, in high school, that can say, `Hey, I'm here forever,''' Mack said. ''But when you have what we have at Xavier, it's special. And I don't take that for granted.''

He'll have plenty to work with next season.

The Musketeers will lose guard Malcolm Bernard (6.6 points per game) and forward RaShid Gaston (7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds). There are some questions about the rest of the roster.

Junior guard Trevon Bluiett (18.5 points) was one of the league's top scorers. He participated in the NBA's pre-draft process last year and decided to remain at Xavier. His decision about the NBA is the most important one for Xavier in the offseason.

Sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner (15 points) tore his left ACL on Jan. 29 and was still on crutches during the tournament. Freshman point guard Quentin Goodin moved into the role, struggled at first and settled down as the season went along, contributing to the late run.

Junior forward Sean O'Mara (6.1 points, 3.1 rebounds) also emerged late in the season and was a key to Xavier's success in March, playing with newfound confidence in the important games. O'Mara's playing time had dwindled to a few minutes per game earlier in the season.

''I give credit to Sean for being able to pull himself out of that rut and play his best basketball in the last month of the season,'' Mack said.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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