By JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — Travis Steele knows the clear expectation as Xavier’s next basketball coach.
“It’s the elephant that’s in the room: Go where Xavier has never gone in the NCAA Tournament,” Steele said.
The Musketeers have never reached a Final Four. They had their best chance this season, when they were ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 — a school record — and won their first Big East regular-season title. They got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, only to lose in the second round to Florida State.
Coach Chris Mack headed to Louisville a few days later. Steele — who was the top assistant under Mack — was hired over the weekend as the school’s 18th head coach, given a higher bar than any of the others.
“There is one final hurdle,” athletics director Greg Christopher said Wednesday while introducing Steele as head coach. “We’ve never been to a Final Four, never won a national championship.”
Xavier decided its best chance was to stick with a formula that has brought the basketball program this far. The Musketeers were inundated with interest from candidates at other schools. They chose to stay in-house, providing continuity to a program that become nationally prominent.
Xavier has become adept at grooming its next head coach on the staff and then letting them take the school another step higher — a process that school president the Rev. Michael Graham called a “signature element” to the program. Xavier has grown from a mid-major program in the 1980s through a succession of coaches: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Mack.
It was no surprise that Steele — who was hired by Miller and has been Mack’s assistant for the last nine seasons — was considered the best choice.
“This is not something we do very often here at Xavier,” Graham said, referring to coaching changes. “But when we do it, we do it really, really well.”
Steele essentially clinched the job during his formal interview on Friday when he spoke in detail about his plans for getting Xavier to a place where it is considered a Final Four program. The Musketeers reached the Elite Eight for the third time in 2016-17.
“Every coach has made Xavier a better place than it was before,” Steele said. “That’s a huge responsibility on my shoulders.”
Unlike Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati and played for the Musketeers, Steele didn’t have any direct ties to the school until Miller hired him in 2008 as director of basketball operations. His brother, John Groce, also is a former Xavier assistant coach and currently the head coach at Akron.
As Mack’s top assistant, Steele was involved in recruiting and designing the offense that was one of the best in the country. Steele said Wednesday there won’t be many schematic changes in how the Musketeers play, but he’ll emphasize defense as he puts together next season’s team.
The Musketeers lose four seniors — Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter — and look to be more of a guard-driven team at the outset next season. Their defense had lapses last season that allowed other teams to put together big runs. Xavier let a 12-point lead slip away in the second half of its loss to Florida State.
Steele said he’s already heard from Xavier fans about it.
“They think our defense needs to improve,” he said, grinning.
Several returning players met with the athletics director during the coaching search and lobbied for Steele to get the job.
“We got coach Steele, and that’s what we wanted,” point guard Quentin Goodin said. “I want to play for a coach I’m comfortable with. He’s really energetic. He’s got a lot of leadership. He’s one of those coaches who knows what he’s talking about. He’ll be straight with you.
“Him being here and helping us grown as players and people — that’s what I feel made him the best choice.”
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