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Under Mack, the Musketeers are just fine

Gone were three starters from a program that went to the Sweet 16 last season and the Elite Eight the prior year.

The coach was also history.

Then came two losses down in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic and the whispers began.

Maybe Xavier would lose its solid footing as one of the elite non-BCS (the Musketeers don't appreciate the mid-major tag) schools in the nation with a new unproven coach and different personnel.

"I thought so," UMass senior Ricky Harris said of Xavier's potential fall.

But it's not going to happen.

It's taken new coach Chris Mack and Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford some time, but Xavier has reeled off eight of its last nine and the Musketeers are atop the Atlantic 10 standings.

The Musketeers aren't going anywhere.

"People were writing us off," Crawford said. "But we had three guys leave, transfers and freshmen. Now, we're finally getting it together."

Mack, who just turned 40 this past December, always considered Xavier his dream school. He graduated from the school in 1992 and had two different assistant coaching stints -- one under the late Skip Prosser and also the past five seasons under Sean Miller.

So he was prepared when athletic director Mike Bobinski opted to keep it in the family after Miller left for Arizona.

"He's one of the smartest basketball minds I've ever been around," said Xavier associate head coach Pat Kelsey, who left the staff at Wake Forest to join Mack.

Mack was also well-aware of the expectations.

"Yeah, you feel the pressure," Mack said.

It's a program that had won 240 games in the past decade, boasts a .717 winning percentage over that span and has won at least 20 games in all but one season.

It's right there with Gonzaga as the non-BCS schools with staying power.

"I want to win more than anybody," Mack said. "So I understand when we don't get off to a good start, guys are going to be screaming at me at halftime."

There were the losses to Marquette and Baylor in Orlando and the road setbacks against Kansas State, Butler, Wake Forest and Temple.

All six were quality losses, but they were setbacks nonetheless.

The natives were getting a bit restless.

"Xavier is used to nothing but success," said Kelsey, a Cincinnati native who captained the 1998 Musketeers team. "In a way, people are a bit spoiled. They expect to win here."

"It took us time to connect the dots," he added. "But you can feel the confidence now."

The transition has certainly been far easier than bringing in someone from the outside.

"That would have been tough," Crawford admitted.

While Mack hasn't altered the philosophy of the program, electing to stick to the core values that he and Miller helped build, he has had to adjust due to the personnel.

"We're playing at a much faster pace than last year's team," Mack said. "But it's not like we hadn't played that way here before under Sean."

Xavier dominated the first 20 minutes against a young, but talented UMass club and went into the locker room with a commanding 17-point lead.

However, Mack watched with concern as UMass came all the way back to take a lead late in the game before Crawford made a couple of critical 3-pointers in the final minutes to avoid the upset.

Now, Xavier embarks on a difficult two-game road swing that begins against A-10 rival Dayton this weekend and continues down in Gainesville against Florida on Feb. 13.

Jamel McLean was on the team that lost to Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16 a year ago.

He feels as though this team, which remains a work in progress, has a chance to go further.

"We have different weapons," McLean said. "But we have more talent than last year's team."

Sophomore point guard Terrell Holloway has a year under his belt, Crawford leads the A-10 in scoring at 19.2 points per game and veteran big man Jason Love -- the lone senior on the team -- is nearly averaging a double-double.

"We weren't worried," said McLean of the coaching change. "We all knew Coach Mack and that he'd keep the same system."

And similar results.