- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The black cloud didn’t so much hover over Chris Mack’s head as it parked there.
Step to the right, there was the doom. Sashay to the left, run smack into the gloom.
In the span of one month, Mack himself had to have three vertebrae fused together. Then the Xavier coach lost his best outside shooter to a torn ACL and learned his top recruit wouldn’t qualify academically.
Other than that, everything was just rosy.
“It definitely deflated us,’’ junior center Kenny Frease said. “I mean, all of that was pretty tough.’’
For most teams, what Xavier has done then would be remarkable: from the ashes to the top of the Atlantic 10.
But this is Xavier and really, does anything the Musketeers do surprise anyone anymore?
Seems like every season people presume this, that or the other will do in the Musketeers. Stars graduate, Sean Miller leaves, Jordan Crawford moves on and this, everyone insists, will be the year X slips.
Except it doesn’t happen. Ever. Only two teams have made at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past three NCAA tournaments: Michigan State and Xavier.
Only 12 teams have earned NCAA bids in five consecutive seasons. One of them is Xavier.
“We’re used to it,’’ guard Mark Lyons said. “It doesn’t matter to us. Every year we set the same goals.’’
Perhaps this year it is finally time to give the Musketeers their due. With its 74-54 ho-hum humbling of Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday night, X has won 11 of its past 12. Now 10-1 in the A-10 and a road battle with Duquesne in the rearview mirror, the Musketeers are poised to continue their league domination. Xavier has won at least a share of the past four regular-season conference crowns and appear well on its way to a fifth.
Xavier has done it with the leanest of lean benches -- of the Musketeers’ 1,805 points scored this season, the starters have accounted for 1,624 of them. They have done it without a real 3-point threat -- XU has taken only 159 treys this season. And yet the Musketeers mounted their climb at the exact same time everyone counted them out.
On Jan. 6, they lost to Cincinnati 66-46 in the always heated crosstown shootout, a humbling dismantling that stood as the most lopsided in the past nine years of the rivalry. The loss dropped the Musketeers to a pedestrian 8-5.
Yet when Mack reassembled his team after that game, he saw exactly the same thing he saw back in October.
Nothing. No reaction.
“The kids never hit the panic button,’’ he said. “They knew it wasn’t acceptable to lose the way we did. That doesn’t always mean you’ll right the ship, but they took that lesson, came to practice, listened to the coaches and got better. They didn’t want to go out like that.’’
Some things did change, though. Lyons, a roadrunner of a sophomore who led his team with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting on Wednesday night, learned to temper his motor, to slow down to sub-Autobahn speeds and play more in control. The Musketeers rediscovered their roots and upped the defensive pressure. Since that Cincinnati game, only three teams have scored more than 70 points against them.
But they also had a lot of what they needed.
Lost in the laundry list of what Xavier didn’t have were the two critical things the Musketeers did have.
Experience, for starters. That minute-lugging starting lineup consists of two seniors, two juniors and one sophomore.
And the other: Tu Holloway. The renamed guard (he changed from Terrell to his long-used nickname during the offseason) belongs in this season’s pantheon of first-name only players: Jimmer, Kemba and Tu.
In 25 games, he has never played less than 33 minutes, has scored at least 20 in 15 games and is one of five players in the country to average 20 points and five assists per game.
Since that Cincinnati loss, when he was a woeful 2-of-13 and finished with five points, Holloway has reached double figures in every single game.
His motivation is simple.
While the rest of the world waits for his team to slip up, he welcomes the burden of winning.
“Whenever we’re in the Cintas Center, we look up and see those banners,’’ Holloway said. “Coach always says, ‘What’s next year’s going to read? Is it going to have a number up there or just be vacant?’ None of us want to be remembered as the guys that didn’t get it done. I’m not going to let people say, ‘Tu is the guy who didn’t get it done.’ No way.’’
No, it certainly doesn’t look that way.