<
>

Xavier playing above 'mid-major' status

Dante Jackson celebrates after Xavier held off Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16. Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

MILWAUKEE -- As Jordan Crawford popped the front of his jersey and Dante Jackson waved the Xavier flag in front of hundreds of navy-clad fans, Xavier's band struck up an old but familiar tune: Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

Whether the choice was conscious or not, it was fitting. Unequivocally -- not as a "mid-major" or "non-BCS", but unequivocally -- Xavier deserves your respect.

With its 71-68 win over No. 3-seed Pittsburgh Sunday night, Xavier became one of two programs in the entire country to advance to the Sweet 16 the past three years. The other is Michigan State. Guess which one gets more ink?

"Xavier's always overlooked," Jordan Crawford, who filed away another brilliant performance Sunday, scoring 27 points and grabbing six rebounds in the win.

"'Mid-major' is just a label," forward Jason Love said. "I don't think too many mid-majors get to three straight Sweet Sixteens, so you can just throw that out the window right now."

"I was watching ESPN the other night," Terrell Holloway said. "I thought Doug Gottlieb said it best. He said we're a mid-major program with high-major talent. If you look at the teams we've beaten over the last couple of years, you know what kind of team we are."

In case it wasn't clear, Xavier doesn't much like being called a mid-major. To be fair, it doesn't much look like one. The Musketeers are stocked with the sort of talent that could play at any program in the country; Crawford and Holloway were top-level recruits that would likely have been starting at a blue-blood program (Indiana) were it not for the Kelvin Sampson sanctions and dismissal. Likewise, Love is the sort of dominant, physical big that most mid-majors simply don't have. Xavier has a plethora of talent. Unlike some mid-majors, the Musketeers don't look out of place among the country's elite.

"We don't look at ourselves as being anything other than a high-major program," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "From the way we travel, to the way we recruit, to the amenities our kids enjoy."

The Musketeers got a measure of revenge on the way back to their third straight Sweet 16 Sunday. Pittsburgh beat Xavier in the third round last year. The similarities between the two programs probably outweigh their differences: Both teams lost key players to the NBA and graduation, both teams were young, and both teams outperformed expectations for much of the season. As programs, both XU and Pitt under Jamie Dixon seem to have a way of plugging along each year, losing key personnel but finding ways to win conference titles and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

Pittsburgh's success this season, after losing three dominant players from 2009's No. 1-seeded NCAA tournament team, was something of a surprise. The Panthers waved farewell to DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields in the offseason, and were expected by most to stay safely outside the top 25 for much of the season. Few predicted Pitt would finish in the top half of the Big East, let alone nab a No. 3 seed in this year's tournament. But that's exactly what they did.

"That's something that gets talked more about from outside our program than inside," Dixon said. "I think this group had total confidence in themselves. Some people may look at it as a surprise. I know we weren't picked that high. But where we got to, there's disappointment in that locker room and a feeling that we didn't win a game that we felt we should have won."

The Panthers started slowly in Sunday night's game and watched as Xavier built a 13-point lead in the beginning of the second half. Pittsburgh quickly climbed back into the game, though, largely thanks to guards Brad Wannamaker and Gilbert Brown, whose transition layups cut X's lead to one with eight minutes left in the second half.

Xavier remained composed. The Musketeers built another miniature lead in the closing minutes, but wavered slightly as Pittsburgh closed it again. Jackson missed two free throws with seven seconds remaining, and Pitt had two separate chances at a game-tying three in the final seconds. Both missed.

"They're a good program," Dixon said. "We're a good program. You know, it comes down to one possession. They're happy and we're suffering inside the locker room."

Indeed, Xavier got its joyful revenge and, if it hadn't already, earned what Aretha would famously term a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And in case you still weren't convinced?

"Check our track record," Mack said. "It's pretty good."