No longer favorite, but X won't go away
CINCINNATI -- He has won 82 games and lost just 24. He's 3-for-3 in NCAA tournament berths and never failed to win at least one game in the Big Dance.
Life has been good for Jason Love, a smooth ride on the express train to basketball success. So excuse him for greedily hoping for more of the same in his senior season at Xavier.
Love ran into the first pothole on April 6, when his head coach, Sean Miller, left for Arizona. A regular on the short list in most coaching searches, Miller had said no so consistently that Love was caught off guard when Miller finally left.
Two weeks later, Love was jolted out of his reverie again. Derrick Brown, Xavier's leading scorer, decided to keep his name in the NBA draft.
Welcome to your close-up, Mr. Love.
"I'm not going to lie, it was hard,'' said the reserved Love. "I was really looking forward to my senior year, and then we lost Derrick and Coach. It was tough. But I had to take it in stride. Those things happen.''
They happen a lot at Xavier, where coaches have used the Cincinnati school as a springboard to bigger and better things: Pete Gillen went to Providence; Skip Prosser to Wake Forest; Thad Matta to Ohio State and Miller to Arizona.
And each time they happen, the same question gets asked: Can Xavier be as good?
The resounding answer has been yes. When Gillen left, Prosser took the Musketeers to the NCAA tournament four times, including two second-round appearances. After Prosser bolted, Matta led X to three consecutive tourney spots, including an Elite Eight berth in 2004. Picking up his predecessor's lead, Miller went to the tournament three times in four years, including his own Elite Eight spot in '08, followed by last season's Sweet 16 berth.
Why, Xavier would like to know, should things be any different under new coach Chris Mack?
"Xavier is a great program, with or without Sean Miller, with or without Derrick Brown,'' said junior Dante Jackson. "We're very aware of our past and what we have to live up to.''
Reasonable or not and past history be damned, the Musketeers nonetheless start this season in an unfamiliar place. Long the hunted in the Atlantic 10, they are outside the Top 25 and playing second fiddle to cross-state A-10 rival Dayton.
There are good reasons. Along with Brown, Xavier lost B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson, both starters.
But the biggest question mark is about the guy not wearing sneakers. The 39-year-old Mack is the most unknown commodity and the biggest reason why the caution flag is up around Xavier.
He knows that and he's just fine with it.
"There's a good reason to have questions,'' said Mack, who was an assistant at Xavier the past five seasons. "I get that. But we also can't get preoccupied with what the nation is thinking about us. I know what's expected. I played here. I've coached here. I know what our fans want. Shoot, my dad is one of those fans in the stands getting on the coaches when things aren't going right.''
To those who think Xavier might be uncomfortable with the underdog role, the X-men say reconsider.
As good as Xavier has been over the years -- eight NCAA tournament berths in the last nine seasons, 20-win seasons in 10 of the last 11, a three-year stranglehold on the A-10 standings -- when haven't the Musketeers been underdogs?
Their conference long has produced teams capable of making deep runs in the NCAA tournament -- Xavier, Dayton, Temple, Saint Joseph's to name a few -- but still has to claw for every scrap of national attention.
If there is a poster child for undervalued college basketball, it is Xavier.
Asked if his is considered a national program, Jackson doesn't even pause: "No, absolutely not,'' he said with a smirk. "I don't know why they don't. I'm not sure what else we have to do.''
Maybe winning when no one expects it will provide the answer.
And there is no doubt that, doubts aside, Xavier can still win. Love, long a rebounding machine content to do the dirty work, will need to become more productive offensively, and Jackson will need to pick up where he left off after a productive NCAA tournament run. But they aren't alone. The Musketeers also have point guard Terrell Holloway and center Kenny Frease back. Both played well in spurts as rookies.
And Xavier welcomes another player to the fold named Jordan Crawford. He dunked on LeBron James this summer -- you may have heard.
He can play a little, too. The Indiana transfer finished seventh in scoring among Big Ten freshmen two years ago, averaging 9.7 points per game. Part of the collateral damage from the Kelvin Sampson fallout, Crawford gives Xavier a proven scorer.
"We have an interesting team,'' Mack said. "We don't have anyone capable of playing the 3 and the 4. We have post players and guys who can handle the ball, so we'll do a lot of three-guard lineup. That's not to say it can't work. We just have to adjust.''
Sort of like Love.
The sting of that first wave of bad news has subsided. He and Mack, who always had a respectful relationship, have developed an even closer one now that Love is the lone senior and team captain.
Mack said if anyone could handle the shifting sands, it is Love, a guy he calls "emotionless" in the best sense of the word because he doesn't fall to pieces in the face of change.
But lest anyone wants to try to confuse that with uncaring, Love is here to clear it up. He has spent three years enjoying the spoils of success.
He's not interested in stopping now.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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