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From Pete Gillen to Chris Mack: How Xavier became an elite program

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The Musketeers have been consistently improving over the past three decades. Here's how they did it.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

In the two years since Xavier joined the Big East, Chris Mack and the Musketeers have racked up a total of 44 wins, third best in the conference behind Villanova (60) and Providence (45). They are also the only one of the "new" Big East teams to make the NCAA Tournament in both seasons.

Yet, if you were to ask someone to name the 50 best programs in the country, there's a good chance the Musketeers wouldn't make the list.

That person's list, however, would be absolute hogwash. Xavier has, in the last 30 years, become one of the country's best programs thanks to Mack, Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Skip Prosser, and Pete Gillen.

Bob Staak

If you ask CBS Sports analyst and former Xavier coach Pete Gillen about Xavier, Bob Staak is the first name he'll mention. "Bob Staak got the ball rolling" Gillen told me. In 1979, Xavier joined the Midwest City Conference. Staak, the new coach and athletic director guided the school into this new conference, and compiled an 88-86 record in his six seasons with the Musketeers, capped off with an NCAA Tournament bid in 1983, Xavier's first since 1961. Staak was 60-32 in his final three seasons after going 28-54 in his first three. Wake Forest took notice of Staak's coaching ability in 1985, and he accepted the head coaching job there. Xavier turned to an up-and-coming assistant named Pete Gillen.

Pete Gillen

"[Xavier] was a great situation for a first time head coach to go into, I was very fortunate. There was support from the University President all the way down to the Athletic Director, not to mention Byron Larkin, a highly touted freshman coming in" Gillen said about his hiring. It's easy to see why Xavier picked Gillen. His two stops prior to Xavier? Villanova, where he was an assistant under College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Rollie Massimino, and Notre Dame, where he was an assistant under the legendary Digger Phelps. Gillen believes that working with those two coaches certainly helped his own coaching career, "Rollie Massimino and Digger Phelps were great coaches and leaders, two great guys to learn from".

Gillen had great success in his first five seasons at Xavier, winning at least 19 games in every season and making five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16.

In 1990, Gillen and Xavier landed a transfer from Indiana's Evansville University (A conference rival, at the time) named Chris Mack. Mack, a native of Cleveland, Ohio had to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules, but Gillen saw things in the young guard that made him realize Mack would be a great coach someday, "Chris was a great leader and a very smart player. When he was sitting out waiting to transfer in, he'd be our second team point guard in scrimmages and often they'd beat the first team. I'd have to tell him to go grab a drink of water, or something, to get him off the court and give our guys a rest."

Even though Mack's tenure as a player was injury-plagued (more on that later), he was still named captain of the Musketeers in back to back seasons by Gillen.

Following Mack's graduation in 1993, the Musketeers went 22-8 and won the Midwest City Conference. However, they were only given an NIT bid. At the end of the season, Gillen was hired at Providence to replace Rick Barnes. "I had no regrets about leaving Xavier. I enjoyed my time there, but the last thing you want in life is to wonder what might have been [had he not left for Providence]. My one regret is that one of Chris Mack's injuries, a torn ACL, occurred 30 seconds into an exhibition game."

The departure of Gillen led to Xavier hiring another up-and-coming assistant. This time, however, they stayed in-house for the hire, turning to Gillen's assistant Skip Prosser.

Skip Prosser

Prosser's first year as head coach saw him picking up right where GIllen left off. The Musketeers, led by future NBA lottery pick Brian Grant, went 23-5 on the season, including 14-0 in conference play. However, they fell to Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Grant's departure for the NBA Draft following the season wasn't the only change Xavier saw. They also left the Midwest City Conference in favor of the Atlantic-10.

Prosser's bunch struggled in their first season in the A-10, going 13-15 and 8-8 in conference play. It was only the second time Xavier had missed the NCAA Tournament since 1985.

Even though Prosser lacked on-court success in the first year in the A-10, he thrived in recruiting. Adding four core recruits, including future NBA player James Posey.

After sitting out his first year due to academic issues, Posey became one of the best players in Xavier's history, leading the team in rebounding three straight years, before eventually becoming a first round pick in the NBA Draft.

Posey and Prosser's best season together was the 1997-98 campaign, in which Xavier won the A-10 tournament on the back of Posey's Most Outstanding Player award. Xavier a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament, fell to Washington by a score of 69-68 in the first round.

By the end of the 2000-01 season, Prosser had amassed a 125-60 record in his time at Xavier, and felt a change was needed. He left Xavier for Wake Forest, taking with him his Director of Basketball Operations, Chris Mack. Prosser took Wake Forest to the NCAA Tournament in each of his four seasons and won 126 games in six seasons there before his passing in 2007.

Xavier, once again, was without a coach. But they didn't have to look too far to find a replacement.

Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Thad Matta

A lot of people were shocked when Matta left his alma mater, Butler, after only one season to take over the Xavier job in 2001. Others saw it as proof of the growth Xavier had over the past 15 years. Xavier was now becoming a premier destination for coaches.

Matta brought a talented assistant named Sean Miller to Xavier as his "associate head coach", the first such position in the school's history.

In Matta's first two seasons the Musketeers went 26-6 both times, and made the second round of the NCAA Tournament both times, thanks largely to a talented power forward named David West, who became a first round pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.

Interestingly enough, Xavier's most successful year under Matta come the season after West left. Xavier once again won 26 games, thanks to Lionel Chambers and Romain Sato both averaging over 15 points per game. An A-10 Tournament title gave Xavier a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament. After rolling through Louisville in the first round, the Musketeers took care of business against #2 Mississippi state to advance to their first Sweet 16 since Gillen took them there in 1990.

Ironically enough, it was the man whom Gillen replaced at Providence, Rick Barnes, who the Musketeers would be facing, as Xavier defeated Texas to advance to their first Elite Eight in school history.

Unfortunately for Xavier, their Final Four dreams were dashed by JJ Redick, Luol Deng, and the rest of the Duke Blue Devils, who beat the Musketeers 66-63.

Thad Matta had done a great job at Xavier, leading them to the first Elite Eight in school history and also winning 78 games in his three seasons.

Another school in Ohio took notice of Matta's success, and on July 7, 2004, The Ohio State University hired Matta. Matta still coaches at tOSU today, and has taken the Buckeyes to two Final Fours.

Xavier, once again, found themselves in the familiar situation of not having a coach. Luckily for them, though, they had one of the top assistants in the country ready and waiting.

Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Sean Miller

When Sean Miller was named Xavier's new head coach, he already had 12 seasons of assistant coach experience under his belt. Starting in 1992, Miller worked at Wisconsin under Stu Jackson, then moved to Miami (Ohio) under Herb Sendek. After Miami he went to North Carolina State for a couple years before being brought on board as Matta's top assistant. Now, at 35, it was his turn.

One of Miller's first moves was to reach out to Chris Mack, the highly successful Director of Basketball Operations at Wake Forest under Skip Prosser at this point in his career, and offer him an assistant coaching job, which Mack accepted.

When I asked Mack about Miller's impact on him, he had this to say, "I owe my entire coaching career to Sean Miller and Skip Prosser. By the time I was with Sean I felt like alI was a tremendous asset as an assistant coach but had much to learn in order to run the program. Sean was systematic in his approach and very thorough with attention to detail. He molded you to be the same way when you worked with him. He motivated players to compete every drill, every practice, every day, not just on game nights when the lights were on."

I am very fortunate to have an administration that cares deeply about the success of men's basketball. -Chris Mack

So with Mack back in the fold, and Matta's top assistant ready to take the reigns of a program that had just made an Elite Eight appearance... Xavier promptly missed the NCAA Tournament in Miller's first season, but went 17-12.

Following that bump in the road, however, Xavier was off and running under Miller. A 21-11 mark in 2005-06 led the Musketeers back to the NCAA Tournament where they lost in the first round. The next season, Xavier won 25 games and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The next season (2007-08), Miller led Xavier to their best record in school history at 30-7. This marks the first time X won 30 games in a season. They earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and made it through the first weekend with relative ease, knocking off Georgia and Purdue.

The Sweet 16 saw Xavier and West Virginia play one of the best games of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, as Xavier won a back and forth contest 79-75 in overtime. The Musketeers led by seven at the half before letting the Mountaineers back into the game. Thanks to Josh Duncan's 26 point outburst, though, Xavier was headed to their second Elite Eight in four years.

Unfortunately for Xavier, this Elite Eight game was nowhere near as close as their last one, as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, and UCLA beat Xavier by a 76-57 margin in which UCLA scored 43 points in the second half.

Miller's group picked up right where they left off in 2008-09, winning 27 games and earning a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They had the same success in the first weekend as they had in 2008, beating Portland State and Wisconsin with relative ease.

Xavier's Sweet 16 matchup had added significance for Miller. It was against top-seeded Pittsburgh, Miller's alma mater. The Musketeers took a 37-29 into the half before, similarly to the UCLA game, they fell apart in the second half, and lost 60-55.

In five seasons, Miller notched 120 wins and had more success in the NCAA Tournament than any Xavier coach before him. However, just like Gillen, Prosser, and Matta before him, Miller departed Xavier for a "Power Conference" job, heading to Arizona shortly after the 2009 NCAA Tournament wrapped up.

Miller is still at Arizona and has built them back up into a powerhouse, as they were under Lute Olsen.

By this point, it had to be feeling like "Groundhog Day" for Xavier: hire an up and coming coach, coach has success with the team, coach leaves for bigger conference. Luckily for Xavier, they, once again, had a replacement in-house ready to go.

Chris Mack

In April 2009, Mack officially succeeded Miller as coach of Xavier. Mack was able to pick up right where Miller left off, as Xavier made the NCAA Tournament in his first season led by Jordan Crawford (later drafted into the NBA). A 26-9 campaign gave Xavier a 6-seed in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. After a first round win over Minnesota, a rematch with Pittsburgh loomed. The Musketeers proved victorious this time by a score of 71-68, and headed to their third straight Sweet 16. What happened next was an instant classic, as Xavier faced off with Kansas State. Jordan Crawford hit one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history to force a second overtime, and even though Kansas State proved victorious, Xavier showed they were going to be around for a while.

2010-11 was another successful year for Mack and Xavier as they went 24-8 before losing to Marquette in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

2011-12 was destined to be a special year for the Musketeers. Dynamic point guard Tu Holloway, the reigning A-10 Player of the Year, was going into his senior season. Holloway didn't disappoint, scoring 30 or more points in 12 regular season games. This effort helped Xavier to a 23-13 record and a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament this time. If Holloway wasn't a household name in college hoops before the Tournament, he sure was after Xavier's first weekend. He had 25 points in Xavier's opening round victory against Notre Dame, and followed it up with 21 against Lehigh to send Xavier to their third Sweet 16 in eight years. Unfortunately for Xavier, their run came to an end after the fell to Baylor 75-70. Holloway had 22 points.

In 2012-13, what became Xavier's final season in the A-10, things didn't go well for the Musketeers. For the first time under Chris Mack, Xavier missed the NCAA Tournament, going 17-14. Shortly before the NCAA Tournament began, the Big East announced it would be adding Butler, Xavier and Creighton for the 2013 season. All the hard work Staak, Gillen, Prosser, Matta, and Miller put in had finally paid off. Xavier was finally heading to a "power conference."

Xavier's been one of the best teams in the "New Big East" so far, trailing only Villanova and Providence in regular season wins with 44.

In 2015, Xavier made yet another Sweet 16 appearance. This one had some added significance for Mack, as it was against his former mentor Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats.

Although Miller got the best of Mack, Xavier showed they certainly belong in a big conference going forward.

After his third Sweet 16 appearance in six seasons, there were fears that Mack might leave Xavier for a "bigger job" as Tennessee, Florida, and Texas all had openings. Mack remained with Xavier, though. Gillen thinks Mack will be around for a while, saying, "I obviously can't speak for Chris, but he should be around for a long time. They've moved up thanks to his hard work."

When asked about how he manages to continue the success that the coaches before him established, Mack said, "I am very fortunate to have an administration that cares deeply about the success of men's basketball. My assistant coaches work tirelessly trying to bring in the right type of student athletes to maintain success and our players are talented and hungry to continue the rich tradition of Xavier Basketball. Our fan base is rabid and expectations are high. We wouldn't have it any other way."