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NCAA Tournament: Chris Mack and Xavier no longer underdogs

Xavier head coach Chris Mack directs his players

Xavier head coach Chris Mack directs his players against St. John's during an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Big East conference tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Xavier coach Chris Mack met Kid Rock on Wednesday.

In the great pantheon of life events, this may rate somewhere around “sort of interesting” or “very exciting,” depending on how you feel about Kid Rock, but for Xavier — a No. 1 seed a year after making the Elite Eight as an 11 seed — this means something completely different. This year, Mack and his players got a text from the owner of Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in Nashville, asking them to come visit. This year, Jeff Ruby told Mack that Kid Rock, one of his favorite artists, would be there.

This year, the Xavier Musketeers are the hunted — and nothing makes it more obvious than the fedora-wearing, rap-metal target on their backs.

Apparently, meeting Kid Rock can mean a lot.

“I was like a kid in a candy store, waiting for him to come in,” Mack said of Kid Rock. “I was pretty composed. I didn’t stutter my words.”

In many ways, Mack’s reaction is a pretty good indicator of where the Musketeers are now. Considered the weakest No. 1 seed in the tournament, they are excited, they are aware of the task at hand, and they understand they need to act like they belong exactly where they are.

“It’s a business trip for us,” Trevon Bluiett said. “Seeding doesn’t necessarily matter. Anything can happen, so we’ve got to take this game, take this tournament one game at a time and just focus on what’s in front of us.”

What’s in front of Xavier is Texas Southern, the play-in No. 16 which beat NC Central to advance to the task of hoping for a March miracle. They began the season 0-13, intentionally playing a brutal non-conference schedule, before going 15-6 in conference play and then winning the SWAC championship. They’re playing with nothing to lose, and they’re fully aware of it.

“All the pressure is on the one seed,” Donte Clark said. “I don’t think there’s any pressure on us. We’ve just got to come out and play our game the best we know how to play. I feel like all the pressure’s on them and we just need to go out there and do what we know how to do.”

Coach Mike Davis said they’re relishing in the experience. They had to raise the money to fund their program, and the first $350,000 went to the university, with the excess going to them; they haven’t played a home game in three years, Davis said. “We go to nice hotels,” he said. “They eat in the hotels. We eat and travel like a power five.

“[Advancing] was just like I thought it would be. It was great. The flight was 45 minutes. Everybody was excited. I think I had 150 texts on my phone and all those guys were on their phone the whole time.”

In essence, it’s two teams living the dream — the old underdog, ushered to dominance, and the new upstart, proving their mettle.

“Nothing exposes you more than the NCAA Tournament, with all the talented teams and talented players, well-coached teams you’re going to play,” Mack said. “Our defense will be up to its first challenge and hopefully won’t be our first and only challenge tomorrow evening against a team that likes to push the ball and give their players a lot of freedom.

“You throw all these teams in one tournament and the better team on that particular night wins. They get to advance and the other one gets to pack up and worry about next year.”

That’s what it comes down to, in the end. Xavier went to Jeff Ruby’s and met Kid Rock, and Texas Southern went to Steak ’n Shake and dreamed a big dream about unseating a favorite. And on Friday night, absolutely none of that will matter.

As Kid Rock would say, Welcome 2 The Party.

New York Sports