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Matta, Miller, or Mack: who would you choose for Xavier?

Xavier has had three straights aces as head coach; which one would you take if you had the opportunity to choose?

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Colorado
Could you vote against a face like this?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I ran a Twitter poll asking Xavier fans - or at least our followers - to choose which of Chris Mack, Sean Miller, and Thad Matta they would want to coach Xavier for the next five years. For what it's worth, Coach Mack is basically 47, Sean Miller is actually 48, and is 49. One of those guys seems a lot older than the others, but never mind that for now. Our followers gave the victory to Coach Mack in a landslide. To see if they were right, let's break it down a little more.

I've basically taken each coach's KenPom page and used it as a snapshot of his career (except for Matta, whose coaching career predates KenPom). Only full seasons have been counted, so this year's works in progress aren't factored into the analysis here. We're not going to go too deep into the numbers Luke Winn style here; you're basically getting the nutrition facts look at what each coach has done.

By the way, it's going to look like I'm ignoring recruiting below. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that, unless you're turning over most of your roster every year (hi, Coach Cal!), your ability to recruit guys that fit your program is going to show up on the floor a lot better than it's going to show up in the recruiting rankings. The other is that you can have a dynamite recruiting class and still end up losing in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris (hi again, Coach Cal!). For the purposes of this exercise, how these guys recruit will be demonstrated by how well their teams do.

North Dakota State v Xavier
I’ve figured out how to embed pictures into articles, which I will obnoxiously demonstrate for the rest of this post.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Chris Mack 162 W 77 L 67.8% W%
Seasons: 7 Avg. KenPom: 39
NCAA bids: 6 Avg. AdjO rank: 46
Sweet 16s: 3 Avg. AdjD rank: 52
Elite 8s: 0 Best KenPom: 14
Final 4s: 0 Worst KenPom: 78

We'll start in with Coach Mack who, as you can see, is a darn fine coach. In seven full seasons, he has gone to six NCAA tournaments. Not only does the dude just know how to make the dance, he also keeps his teams going into the second weekend. Half of his NCAA bids have gotten to the Sweet 16, though none have picked up that third win. He is a coach who certainly values defense, but his teams have actually not relied on that end of the court so much as they're generally balanced both ways. Two of his three Sweet 16 teams have been significantly more talented on offense than they have been defending.

What stands out to me about Coach Mack is how flexible his approach is. His first year was the second-fastest tempo he's posted in his career. Things throttled back significantly through the rest of his time in the A-10 and early in the Big East, but last year Xavier was 35th in the nation in tempo. He has had assist% heavy teams and teams with ball stoppers. He's had teams that crushed the glass and teams that were just average. He has had defenses that were very conservative as far as forcing turnovers goes and teams that really poached passing lanes. I think his versatility in shaping his strategy to his needs speaks to the fact that he's a really, really good basketball coach. I just wanted to get that out there because, by the numbers, he's the bronze medalist of these three.

Pittsburgh Panthers v Xavier Musketeers
This was a heck of team.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Sean Miller 316 W 110 L 74.2% W%
Seasons: 12 Avg. KenPom: 33
NCAA bids: 9 Avg. AdjO rank: 34
Sweet 16s: 6 Avg. AdjD rank: 55
Elite 8s: 4 Best KenPom: 2
Final 4s: 0 Worst KenPom: 88

Continuing backwards in chronological order, we get to Sean Miller next. Miller has the ignomious fate of having the lowest percentage of seasons going to the NCAA tournament, having piloted just 75% of his teams to the nation's premier postseason event. When he gets there though, he does pretty well, picking up the three wins required to get to the Elite 8 on four separate occasions but never getting over the hump to the Final Four. Six Sweet 16s in nine trips to the dance highlight how consistently Miller gets his team to the second weekend.

If you like offense, this is your guy. He has put together some really good defenses, but his offensive production has been consistently excellent. Aside from when he was just settling in at Arizona, he's been 55 or better in offensive efficiency every year of his career. Most of his teams have done it by shooting threes well but not often and crushing the offensive glass. Combine that with a slow tempo and you have an offensive machine that's less drag racer and more combine harvester, inexorably mowing through defenses in front of it.

2004 NCAA Round 3: Xavier v Texas
I forgot how young Matta used to look.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Thad Matta 422 W 139 L 75.2% W%
Seasons: 16 Avg. KenPom: 20
NCAA bids: 13 Avg. AdjO rank: 37
Sweet 16s: 6 Avg. AdjD rank: 22
Elite 8s: 4 Best KenPom: 1
Final 4s: 2 Worst KenPom: 76

Finally, we land with Thad Matta, who got his first head coaching job at age 33 and kept it for just a year before jumping to Xavier. Three years after jumping from small money to medium money, he made the big money move to OSU, where he has been compiling good numbers ever since. He wins three quarters of his games, has been to the second weekend six times and the third weekend twice, and has finished in KenPom's top ten on five separate occasions. His worst KenPom finish was 76th, coming last year. Other than that, he has finished 34th or better every single season he has been a head coach. That is a staggering run of consistent excellence.

Holy cow can Matta coach defense. His worst defensive team was 62nd and his next worst was 43rd. Those aren't bad defenses, but they pale in comparison to the nine teams he has had finish in the top 20 in the nation in defensive efficiency. During the KenPom era, opponents have averaged just a hair under .9 points per possession against Matta's teams, and - aside from the lone year at Butler in 2000-2001 - he has been doing it in pretty good conferences. His offenses have been all over the map - twice falling outside the top 100 in efficiency - but they've still averaged out to be pretty darn good. I guess there's a reason he was poached twice before he was 40.


So where does that leave us? I don't know; more informed? There are some conclusions that I think we can draw from this.

The obvious one is that Xavier has had a string of really good coaches. It's not just these three, either; when was the last time Xavier whiffed on a hire? Bob Staak came on in 1979 and rebuilt the program for three years before ripping off a 60-32 record in his last three seasons. Then Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser bridged us to the era we're talking about right now. The last time Xavier had a bad head coach, the national championship that Loyola Chicago won was still a relevant discussion point. One coaching misstep can send a mid-major into a tailspin, and even a blueblood like Georgetown isn't immune to leadership-related malaise. For almost 40 years, from the MCC to the Big East, Xavier has picked the right man to direct the program.

We can also see that there's something making fans lean towards Coach Mack in the poll. Part of it is likely that he is the youngest, has the shortest track record, and seems to be holding a good deal of momentum. Maybe folks find him more projectable; Matta and Miller are known quantities while Mack may be yet to reach his ceiling. On the other hand, Matta and Miller's apparent ceilings are pretty darn high. The difference between Miller's four Elite Eights and at least a couple of trips to the Final Four is pretty narrow. Matta has been in the Final Four twice and once played for the national championship.

If you had to pick one of Matta, Miller, and Mack, you could hardly go wrong. I don't know if Xavier would be better off if Matta or Miller would have stayed instead of fleeing for more money and nicer cars. The fact that the program has lost two coaches that I'm very comfortable calling elite since the beginning of the century and fans are still excited by the guy we have speaks well of the direction of the program under Coach Mack. After taking a look at the numbers above, I’ll end with the same question I started with: you can pick one of these guys to coach X for the next five years. Who do you take, and why?