- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CINCINNATI | The only time that Xavier coach Sean Miller mentions his record-setting days as Pittsburgh‘s point guard is when he’s getting on his inexperienced guards to pass the ball more.

How good was he?

“He had 746 assists or something like that?” sophomore guard Dante Jackson said Monday, turning toward teammate C.J. Anderson for clarification.

“I don’t know how many it is,” the senior forward responded.

Off by two. Miller had 744 assists for Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1992, a school record until Brandin Knight topped it a decade later. He was big stuff in those days, a Pennsylvania boy who became Pittsburgh’s steadying force on offense. Now those Panthers are in his way.

With another appearance in the round of 16, third-seeded Xavier has become the model for how a non-BCS school can turn itself into a national basketball power, one that’s trying to reach the Elite Eight for the third time in six years. The Musketeers have to beat No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday in Boston to get there.

So it’s quite a reunion for the Musketeers’ coach.

“Pitt holds a special place for me,” Miller said Monday. “I had a great experience as a student-athlete there. I was treated like you want to be treated. The friendships I have today, so many of my close friends really stem from that four- or five-year experience there.

“And it really stops there. In terms of this NCAA tournament, the focus is really on our players and on our team. To be back in the Sweet 16 in consecutive years, that’s where the focus should be.”

No worry there. Xavier has become one of the programs - along with Gonzaga - that small schools look to emulate so they can become one of the big boys in basketball. The Musketeers have won three straight Atlantic 10 regular-season titles, reached the NCAA tournament in five of the last six years and advanced to the round of 16 for the third time in that span.

In the 1980s, Xavier was one of those mid-major programs that’s just happy to make the tournament occasionally. The Musketeers reached the round of 16 for the first time in 1990 under coach Pete Gillen, who got the program headed to where it is now.

Instead of hoping to making the tournament every season, the Musketeers expect to compete for league titles, reach the tournament and make a deep run. That’s the reason for the envy that seems to be going around.

“I think honestly our goal is to be a Gonzaga or a Xavier,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said before his team lost to Louisville in the second round Sunday. “We have made steps in that direction, but I don’t think we have accomplished as much over the same length of time. You’re talking about programs that are over 10 years - and in Xavier’s case, almost 15 years - they’ve been successful in their conferences.”

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