My friend Frank Cusumano raised a good question on Twitter Sunday night, as NCAA 2-seed Xavier lost to Wisconsin on a heart breaking buzzer-beater in St. Louis.
The question; “Can somebody explain to me how Xavier in NCAA’s for 25th time and @SLU_Billikens are at 7? Same kind of Jesuit school, city and facility.”
I’ve wondered the same for many years, and there are a lot of reasons. Among them:
1) Xavier plays in a competitive environment. Xavier is in Cincinnati, and the University of Cincinnati has been to the NCAA tournament the last six years, and reached the tournament each year from 1992-2005.
Dayton is 50 miles down the road from Xavier, and they’ve been to the tournament seven times since 2000. Ohio State is the state school, and they’ve been to the NCAA’s thirteen times this century. Xavier has to keep up with the Jones’s, and they have.
In fact, they’ve been to the NCAA’s fourteen times since 2000, more than Cincinnati, Xavier or Ohio State. SLU doesn’t have another Division I program in town, and the state school, Missouri, doesn’t provide much need for competition.
Mizzou has been to the tournament nine times since 2000, and that’s what SLU has to keep up with. The Billikens have been to the tournament four times since 2000. The competition for success and more importantly, school pride, isn’t as profound at SLU.
2) Xavier has a much more storied basketball history than SLU. Former Billiken coach Lorenzo Romar once pointed out to me that even if a school has a history in the NCAA’s from long ago, it’s something they can sell.
Head coach Chris Mack can tell this year’s recruits about the 11 NCAA tournament appearances Xavier made before 1997, the year most of them were born. He can also express the potential for those same players’ formative years.
Xavier was in the elite eight in 2004 and 2008, and the sweet sixteen in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2016. The new coach at SLU can only fall back on the Spoonball era of the 1990s and winning tournament games in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and only nine appearances overall. It takes a long time to build history.
3) That competition and history builds expectation from fans, who call for accountability. Xavier fans aren’t going to put up with Cincinnati, Dayton and OSU being better. Mack must live in the considerable shadow of former Xavier head coaches Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and Sean Miller.
He knows trouble is on the horizon if he doesn’t. SLU doesn’t share the same expectation of excellence. Sure, Charlie Spoonhour and Rick Majerus had success, but their successors haven’t faced tremendous pressure to win.
The SLU administration also hasn’t applied much pressure historically. Former President Lawrence Biondi said when he hired Spoonhour that he wanted a consistent top-50 program. There was some reluctance to build Chaifetz Arena, and Majerus was hired to complete the puzzle. As far as expectations go, they aren’t high at SLU.
4) Xavier has a strong commitment to excellence. School president Michael Graham has been in place since 2001. He’s a basketball fan, and has signed off on the hiring of Matta, Miller and Mack.
A 2012 Cincinnati Magazine story reads, “all told, Xavier now spends a larger percentage of its athletic budget on men’s basketball than all but a handful of schools in Division I. Sean Miller says that, in terms of resources, he had everything at Xavier he now has at Arizona.”
Graham understands what a good team can do, as he told Sports Illustrated in 2009, “The money we pay our basketball coaches should be billed to our marketing department.” Revenue sports are the front porch of an institution. Good teams and their visibility translate into applications.
While SLU has sporadically made the commitment to being a big time program, it isn’t consistent. The sort of understanding that Xavier exhibits is something that SLU has never publicly demonstrated.
Both schools have great on-campus facilities and are in similar markets, but Xavier has committed to a great basketball program while SLU occasionally has good teams.
5) That expectation and commitment build consistency. Xavier has compiled twenty consecutive winning seasons, with eighteen of those years producing at least twenty wins and post-season berths (two in the NIT).
In those twenty years, Xavier has sixteen NCAA appearances. SLU on the other hand, has thirteen winning seasons the past twenty years, with eight post-season berths (two NIT, one CBI), six twenty win seasons and five NCAA appearances.
6) When players choose a college, unfortunately it’s not always for academics. They want to win championships, get TV exposure, and get to the NBA.
Since 2000, Xavier has produced eleven NBA players, including James Posey, David West, Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant and Aaron Williams, all of whom played at least ten years in the league.
In that same time, Larry Hughes (who actually started in the NBA in 1999) is the only SLU product to play in the NBA for ten years. Willie Reed, who was kicked out of school after his sophomore season, made the NBA this year and is considered a SLU player as well, but the evaluation and development has been clearly better at Xavier than SLU.
New SLU president Fred Pestello is hopefully making a statement with Jim Crews’ firing and replacement search. There really isn’t a good excuse for Xavier being so much better than SLU, but there are plenty of reasons for it.