Xavier now expects deep tourney runs
Musketeers players hope to leave legacy of excellence
Xavier is over the mid-major label.
Despite playing in the Atlantic 10 and not having a football team to bolster their athletic reputation, the Musketeers have thrived on the basketball court and have become a program many other small schools want to emulate.
The Musketeers have won three straight A-10 regular-season titles, have reached the NCAA tournament in eight of the past nine years and are a win in Thursday night's game against Pittsburgh away from reaching their third Elite Eight since 2004.
"People decide to come to Xavier because Xavier is a basketball school," forward B.J. Raymond said. "It's like Duke or a North Carolina. Xavier, on a lower level, is a basketball school. We don't have a football team, so when you're walking around campus, everyone knows who you are. We're not the biggest school or anything like that, but now it's kind of gone on to a national level, and we're getting a little more respect."
It's hard not to respect what the Musketeers have done during the past couple of decades. Xavier has progressed from a school that was happy with some success to a school that expects deep tournament runs every year.
Freshman Kenny Frease, XU's highest-ranked recruit last year, said one of the things that drew him to Xavier was the team's commitment to success. From the moment he began his recruiting trip, prospective teammates were asking him about his training regimen and testing his devotion to winning in basketball.
"The three captains -- Derrick [Brown], C.J. [Anderson] and B.J. -- put it in our minds that there's a high bar set and anything less than that wasn't what we were looking for," Frease said. "That was big right from the beginning. You really want to work for three guys that have already done it and then obviously the coaches. The coaches know what it takes to get there. You just have to listen to them, but you can learn a lot from a player that's already been through it."
Xavier pushed its own limits this season by playing a ridiculously tough nonconference schedule, which netted the Musketeers the No. 17 RPI in the country. The X-Men defeated Virginia Tech and fellow Sweet 16 participants Missouri and Memphis during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic. The Musketeers won at Cincinnati, at Virginia and at LSU before being handled by Duke in East Rutherford, N.J. They also defeated Auburn and lost to Butler. All but Cincy and UVa played in a postseason tournament.
"We want to play a very, very challenging schedule for two reasons -- one, we want to prepare ourselves to have the best opportunity to win our regular-season conference championship," coach Sean Miller said.
"No. 2, and it's an obvious one, it gives us an opportunity to qualify for an at-large berth in the tournament to improve our seed. To get those marquee wins that I think the selection committee has very honestly stepped to the forefront and said you have to have this to be a part of the tournament."
Still, the schedule was ambitious, especially since the Musketeers lost three key players from 2008's Elite Eight team -- point guard Drew Lavender, forward Josh Duncan and guard Stanley Burrell -- two of the team's leading scorers and its leading defender, Burrell.
But Brown, Anderson and Raymond have kept the team pointed in the right direction and have tried to point out to the younger players the difference between the good teams and the great teams.
Xavier has had a lot of good teams -- Brown, Anderson and Raymond were part of that run -- but now the push is to be one of the great ones and establish a pattern of being among the upper echelon of the nation's basketball programs.
"We've had a lot of bittsweets, and we understand that you can be so happy and so high through your career, and then it can end and people forget about you in an instant," Raymond said. "I try to explain that to the younger guys. People put you up so high, but as soon as you lose, it's like, 'Pack your bags and let's go.'
"I've just been trying to send that sense of urgency to the younger guys so it becomes a legacy of excellence. You don't want to be forgotten about."
Graham Watson covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.
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