Winners of their first seven games, including wins at Vanderbilt and Butler, the Musketeers were living up to their billing and were ranked No. 8 in the country. And that’s when, in the final seconds of the Crosstown Shootout, the season changed. No need to rehash the fight or the postgame comments — that was done plenty on TV and YouTube — but the team lost its next three games and limped into Atlantic 10 play. Even with its suspended players back, the Musketeers didn’t have their game back.
After avenging their earlier loss to rival Dayton on Feb. 18, the Musketeers this week sit third in the A-10 standings and are in danger of not winning a share of the regular-season conference crown for the first time in the past five seasons. Before the overtime victory over the Flyers, I caught up with head coach Chris Mack, who in his third year at the helm of the Musketeers is meeting his biggest challenge yet.
CityBeat: It’s probably too easy to pin the team’s struggles on one event, so besides the Crosstown Shootout, is there something else we haven’t seen from outside?
Chris Mack: That’s a good question, because you never as a coach feel like it’s one thing. If it was that easily identifiable, it would be easy to correct. Different games have brought different problems to the table.
Some games we’ve defended really well, but we can’t score to save our life. On some nights we can’t get a stop defensively. The inconsistency has been the hardest thing, I think, to wrap our head around as a staff.
CB: Is the view different as a head coach than it was as an assistant? You’ve been on teams that have done this before, that have had these kinds of skids and then bounced back. But is it different when you’re sitting a couple of seats down?
CM: No, I think you’re invested. At least, speaking for myself, when I was an assistant coach and we went through this — you’re so dag-gummed invested in the process and the results. You feel a huge sense of responsibility as a head coach, but not in the least do you feel removed as an assistant coach. You’re really invested in trying to find the answers.
CB: What lessons have you taken from those other years where you have struggled but bounced back?
CM: To stay the course. Despite all the answers that seem to be floating out there — you need to do this, you need to change that — we have a proven system that works. To deviate from that, to try to find some magic potion and some different response, is foolish. We have to make sure we stay the course and we stick together in that locker room.
CB: Is that one of the unique things about college athletics — that these kids don’t have the history? You’ve been here and seen things play out like this, but the players haven’t? Do you have to find a way to communicate to different people that you’ve seen this before?
CM: It’s a belief you have to create every single day in practice, every single day in the locker room. It starts with small steps, being able to execute drills in practice and then hopefully as you play games, and when you’re successful in what you’ve worked on, it starts to spread. Pretty soon the positive stretches of four or five minutes on the floor become a half, become a game, become a streak of games.
CB: And this has happened before at Xavier. If you’re going struggle, it’s better to do it in January and early February than in March.
CM: We’ve talked about it with our team, you look at the two teams that went to the national championship game a year ago in Butler and UConn — Butler was dead. They were dead with three weeks to play in the year and then they go to the national championship game with 10 losses. The same thing with UConn — they were not an NCAA tournament team when the Big East tournament started. So, it’s just being able to navigate through all the negativity and understand we have a lot of opportunity in front of us and hopefully we find it.
CONTACT C. TRENT ROSECRANS: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ctrent