BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Jim Crews took a walk with his wife, Kim, earlier this week and started to reflect on the past three years.

They talked about his exit from Army's coaching job in 2009. He mentioned how much he enjoyed working on the basketball court in Carmel, Ind., when a friend asked him to help with elementary school kids. He said how much he enjoyed a brief stint doing some broadcast work for the Big Ten Network.

Then he pointed out how much fun he had last season when Rick Majerus called him in a pinch to join his Saint Louis staff after assistant Alex Jensen left for the Cleveland Cavaliers' Development League team right before the start of practice in October 2011.

"It wasn't the best-laid plans, but I've liked it all," said Crews.

Now he is facing his most unique situation by far.

Crews is the interim head coach for Saint Louis, named Aug. 24 after Majerus had to take an indefinite leave of absence to undergo evaluation and treatment for a heart condition.

The Billikens return the core of a team that went to the NCAA tournament last season and beat Memphis before losing to Michigan State. Saint Louis was picked second to Saint Joseph's by one first-place and two overall votes during Thursday's Atlantic 10 media day poll.

A number of A-10 coaches said they assumed the Billikens might have been selected No. 1 had Majerus been coaching the team. Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said he picked the Billikens.

Crews said SLU athletic director Chris May told him it's his job for the season and to run with it.

"Everything they've told me has been the truth," said Crews. "Anything we need to make this program and this team a success they've done. They've been 100 percent behind us."

Majerus has been in California -- the last report was he had been in Santa Barbara -- dealing with his heart situation. He has had a history of heart problems, dating back to a seven-bypass surgery when he first got to Utah in 1989.

Crews said he has not talked to Majerus since he left to deal with his situation.

"To my knowledge, no one has here," said Crews. "In terms of communication, his family has shut it down. If they opened up a little bit, there would be 5,000 people calling and texting and doing all that."

While everyone associated with the Billiken program has Majerus in their thoughts and prayers, the team has moved on.

Crews isn't as detailed as Majerus, but they share the same philosophy. Crews said he won't change anything, not the defensive principles or even their offensive differences, where Majerus likes to screen on the ball and Crews off it.

He said the players are too invested in what they've learned to change any approach.

"My job and our job for the past 25 years as a coach is to serve the players and put them in position to be successful," Crews said.

Saint Louis has a core group that should be as tough to defend as any in the league, with experienced players returning at every position, even with the departure of Brian Conklin. Kwamain Mitchell, Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. will run their sets efficiently. The Billikens have depth with Austin McBroom and Keith Carter. The inside crew of Cody Ellis, Rob Loe and Dwayne Evans gives Saint Louis productive post players who won't make too many mistakes.

"Everything here has been positive so far," said Crews. "These guys have put in a lot of time and energy in what we do. There's been positive leadership here. Rick always said it's their team, and it is. It's a very loose team. It's been a neat environment to be around."

Saint Louis will be challenged early with a potential game against Kansas in Kansas City, Mo., if the teams beat Texas A&M and Washington State, respectively. Going to Washington and hosting Valparaiso, North Texas and New Mexico will be challenging games and pluses in power ratings.

Crews made three NCAA tournaments at Evansville during a 17-year tenure but none in seven years at Army. He didn't plan this and has no visions that he is trying to prove himself to get the full-time job. But he has a chance to coach his best team during his head-coaching career. (He was an assistant on Indiana's NCAA title team in 1981.)

He said he is just the "keeper of the keys" for this season. Crews is going day by day, and his demeanor has been perfect for this opportunity. Majerus pulled him back into college coaching a year ago, but Crews had no idea that he would stay. Now that he's here again, he's enjoying every day.

Saint Louis captains Cody Ellis and Dwayne Evans were called in last Friday by the coaching staff and athletic director Chris May.

Fellow captain Kwamain Mitchell was at home in Milwaukee and had to get the news on the phone.

Their coach, Rick Majerus -- the guy who recruited them and led them to a NCAA tournament victory last season -- would not coach the Billikens in 2012-13 because of a serious heart condition.

They weren't told any specifics of his condition and weren't able to speak to him. They were told that he was in a California hospital and receiving quality care. That's about it.

"We don't really know a whole lot," Ellis said. "He's not going to be able to coach. And we were told that last season might have been his last coaching. He finally had all his recruits here. This was definitely his team and all the players he wanted.

"He taught us an unbelievable amount the past couple of years. We've bought into his system and we all respect him so highly as a coach and as a person in general. It's not as much fun without him."

Ellis and Evans said there was initial silence when the news was delivered. Then there was sadness. But soon after they left the room, there was a conviction that this won't one bit change their stated goal: to win the Atlantic 10 and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

"I was pretty destroyed," said Ellis, who was recruited to Saint Louis from Australia by Majerus. "He was the reason I came to SLU. He's an unbelievable coach. He knows the game like no other."

Standing in front of Ellis and Evans were May, new interim coach Jim Crews and assistants Jim Whitesell, Tanner Bronson and Mike Lepore.

"It was silent," Evans said. "They asked if we had any questions and we just stared at each other. There wasn't anything to say. It wasn't something we expected. There was just shock."

The entire team was told next. But the senior Mitchell, who has a close relationship with his fellow Wisconsin native -- a man who helped Mitchell during a yearlong suspension two seasons ago -- had to hear the news alone.

"For me, it was very emotional," Mitchell said. "It was more personal. He came to my house to recruit me. He was there for me during my bumps on the road. There was no one around when they called me. I had to go through it alone. Coach is like a father figure to me. I could talk to him about anything. We would grab lunch and just talk about life. He is like a father, a friend, a best friend."

Mitchell said that Majerus stayed on top of his situation during the suspension, with care and tough love.

"He cared so much," Mitchell said. "He made sure I did everything I had to do before I could come back."

Majerus has always kept his distance from his teams in the offseason, regardless of where he coached. He rarely stays in the same city, opting to travel mostly in the spring and summer. So it wasn't out of the norm for the players not to see him much after the season.

But Mitchell said he had lunch with Majerus earlier in the summer and later caught up with him on the phone a few times to discuss workouts.

Evans said he hadn't seen Majerus in person since the Billikens lost to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament to conclude a 26-8 season (12-4 in the A-10). But the two did talk on the phone at the beginning of the summer.

"He was optimistic and excited about this year," Evans said. "He was just talking ball and so excited. I wouldn't have guessed that this would be a condition that would occur."

Ellis said that Crews' voice will be different but didn't hesitate to praise his coaching ability.

"He's an unbelievable coach," Ellis said. "He played and coached for Bobby Knight. He is a close friend of coach [Majerus]. He'll have a different perspective on things, but we all know the system so well and we're an older team now. We've matured a lot the past year."

Ellis said the Billikens didn't have to do as much learning in practice last season. And that should be the same expectation in 2012-13, although SLU is integrating key new pieces such as point guard Keith Carter out of Chicago (Majerus compared him to former Utah playmaker and NBA veteran Andre Miller) and forward Jared Drew from Indianapolis. The Billikens return plenty of upperclassmen to join Evans, Ellis and Mitchell, including juniors Jordair Jett and Rob Loe.

"At the end of the day, it's our team but I still think [Majerus] is going to be a big part of it, even in his absence," Ellis said.

"Coach always told me that coaches don't win games, players do," Mitchell said. "I've talked to Coach Crews. And the one thing he said is we have to communicate on and off the court. How we guard and how we run certain plays, that won't change."

Nevertheless, Evans said it's hard to sum up how much Majerus has meant to this team and to their individual careers.

"None of the guys on the team would be as good a player as they are [without Majerus]," Evans said. "We wouldn't have had as good a year last year. He's a huge voice on and off the court. He's a great guy who sincerely cares about us."

And while it seems trivial since there are serious heart health issues for the 64-year-old Majerus, the normalcy of a season can continue for the players because of the timing of the announcement and the easy transition to a familiar assistant coach.

"We will use this as motivation," Evans said. "We won't let this get us down. We have the same mission we had a week ago -- an A-10 championship and an NCAA berth. The older guys on the team have been under him for two or three or four years. We can pass on his knowledge even if he's not on the sidelines. He will still resonate through us.

"It's all in the details with Coach Majerus. He doesn't allow any slippage. That's his biggest attribute. We will miss him on the sideline. He is a great leader and motivator. Our expectations have changed from last year to this year [because of him]. He laid out a foundation for us to be a part of something special this year."

College basketball lost one of its comedic old souls Wednesday when Charlie Spoonhour succumbed to a lung disease at 72.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins lost one of his closest friends, leaving him with a stark reminder of an era long past.

"He was more than a friend; he was like the big brother I never had," Huggins said on Wednesday afternoon. "We had weeks when we would talk every day. It's been harder now since he's been in and out of the hospital. It's just a sad, sad day."

Spoonhour died at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Spoonhour had settled in the area as he spent time at the Duke University Medical Center, where he received a lung transplant in 2010. He had a disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of his lungs.

Huggins said he had been in contact with Spoonhour regularly but hadn't seen him since the season started.

Huggins said in his two Final Four appearances -- in 1992 at Cincinnati and in 2010 at West Virginia -- Spoonhour would be with him the night before the semifinal game.

"He just had an incredible magnetism," Huggins said. "He was so funny. He's a throwback to the old days."

Spoon, as he was affectionately called, was a jovial character. Every time I dealt with him throughout his career he was accessible, amiable and always full of life. He loved to share stories with his Arkansas-native twang. He was a hit at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) from 1983 to 1992 (five NCAA bids) and transformed Saint Louis University into Spoonball from 1992 to 1999.

He then took two seasons off before trying to revive UNLV from 2001 to 2004.

"I was right in the middle of that," said Huggins of advising Spoonhour. "I don't think people realized what he did at Saint Louis. When he got there they played in the Checkerdome in front of 2,000 people and then we were playing in front of 20,000 at Kiel. It was an incredible atmosphere. He had an incredible hold on the city of Saint Louis."

Huggins was the head coach at Cincinnati when Spoonhour was at SLU. The two were rivals in the Great Midwest but were extremely tight.

"We were very, very close," Huggins said. "He was the best. We used to make up things so we could hang out together. He'd call me up to see if I could do a roast for the Southwest Missouri State baseball team. People who didn't know him missed out on a lot."

Spoonhour had an infectious smile and personality. I'm not sure I ever heard a negative word about him during his tenure in coaching.

"He had such an appreciation for the profession, and the people who worked at their craft," Huggins said. "We were all friends. It was me, KO [Kevin O'Neill at Marquette], Charlie, Gene Bartow [UAB], Larry Finch [Memphis] and Joey Meyer [DePaul]."

Now three of them have passed, all within the past year: Spoonhour, Finch and Bartow.

"It was different, it was the old days, we all hung out," Huggins said. "This business has changed so much. We used to do clinics and go in on a Friday and leave on Sunday. We broke bread together. Now we all fly in and out. With all the recruiting regulations and time periods it's not like it used to be."

No, it is not. Spoonhour was one of the game's characters. He was treasured while he was in the game. He was missed when he retired and will be now even more.

Rick Majerus sounds the way he did in the 1990s when he coached Utah to the national title game.

He has confidence in his players and the team's potential. He enjoys this team. And he feels healthy again.

The road back to respectability for Saint Louis has come with plenty of distractions for Majerus in health issues, injuries and personal loss. The team had to deal with a crushing blow last season when its two best players, Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed, were suspended from school. Reed never returned. Mitchell came back for the spring semester.

And SLU struggled to a 12-19 overall record, including a 6-10 mark in the Atlantic 10. Majerus then lost Porter Moser, his top assistant to Loyola (Chicago), and days before this season started, his trusted former player and new top assistant, Alex Jensen, left to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers' D-League team.

"To lose Porter Moser and Alex Jensen and then to add two guys who had never been with me before that don't know the terminology … it's been challenging," Majerus said.

But it has worked out better than expected.

Majerus called on an old friend, former Evansville and Army coach Jim Crews, to fill Jensen's spot. Former Loyola coach Jim Whitesell -- yes, the one Moser replaced -- joined the staff earlier. "It may be my best staff ever," Majerus said. "And I've had good staffs."

Now the Billikens are playing better than they did in 2009-10 (23-13, 11-5 in the A-10) when they reached the College Basketball Invitational championship series against VCU.

Saint Louis, fresh off a 13-point win over Pac-12 tri-favorite Washington, heads off to Anaheim to play Boston College in the 76 Classic on Thursday (ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET). The game against the Huskies wasn't as close as the final score would indicate, as Saint Louis was up 25 points at the half on Sunday.

"People forget that we won 23 games two years ago and we should have gotten an NIT bid but didn't," Majerus said. "I was out 24 or 27 days last year [with a leg infection after being crushed into a sideline scorer's table]. We lost our top two players. We had injuries. We had only eight scholarship players to finish. This year we're at a full 13. It's early, but it's been gratifying so far."

Mitchell is playing well and scored 18 points against the Huskies. Majerus said that people have forgotten that Mitchell wasn't even in school last fall, returning in the spring but not being able to practice. So he missed a year and didn't play with the team. Yet there are no signs of rust with his per-game averages of 12 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists. Mitchell's overall numbers are also impressive with 15 total assists, 3 turnovers and 6 steals.

"He may still take some time after taking a year off," Majerus said. "But he has shown more leadership. He was up in Milwaukee doing community service and an internship. He wasn't around at all. So it is a challenge for him."

Kyle Cassity has been a dream at guard, dishing out seven assists and finishing with zero turnovers against the Huskies. He has nine assists and zero turnovers on the season. Majerus is a stickler for unforced errors, and Cassity isn't making them.

Forward Brian Conklin is scoring, as evidenced by his 25 points versus Washington, including a 7-of-8 performance from the free throw line. And the bench is contributing -- especially Cody Ellis, fresh off an injury last season, who produced a half-dozen points against the Huskies.

Most importantly for Majerus, the Billikens are defending. Washington couldn't run as effectively against SLU and made only four 3s. The Huskies had 16 turnovers. But Washington did outrebound SLU, which will be a constant issue for the Billikens this season.

Saint Louis was picked to finish third in the A-10 behind Xavier and Temple, and through three games there is no reason to think the Billikens can't contend. This week's tournament should be a strong indicator. The Billikens are in the upper half of the bracket, where they likely will play Villanova in a semifinal. If the bottom half goes according to plan, they'll meet New Mexico in the final.

SLU still has to go to New Mexico in a potential scheduling quirk (if the Lobos and Billikens meet in Anaheim) on New Year's Eve before opening the A-10 schedule at Dayton on Jan. 4. The Billikens play a home-and-home with Xavier but face Temple and projected fourth-place finisher St. Bonaventure only once at home in the unbalanced schedule.

If Saint Louis wins the 76 Classic in a field that may have only two other possible NCAA tournament teams in Nova and UNM, it would be another résumé-builder in November for a team that could be a tough out in March.

Regardless, Majerus has weathered quite a storm in Saint Louis and is doing exactly what he was hired to do -- give this program national respect and a platform to excel. Majerus has been a stickler for preparation -- as Utah's coach, he put up full-length sheets in a hotel ballroom on each opposing player's strengths and weaknesses. He has mellowed quite a bit since then, but his attention to detail hasn't waned. And he still loves quality defense over anything flashy offensively. The Billikens held Tennessee State to 37 points (the same Tennessee State team that beat South Carolina 64-63 on Sunday) and limited Southern Illinois to 42 points -- on the road.

"We were up 32 [Sunday over Washington] and then had a little bit of a letdown," Majerus said. "They played their asses off. We knew they'd make a run. I like our team. We're playing good defense. That's the best part of this."

The elite powers have resurfaced at the top of the Top 25 and across the high-major conferences.

A few schools, like Xavier, Gonzaga and Memphis, as well as newcomers Baylor, Marquette and Vanderbilt are expected to challenge with deep NCAA tournament runs and possible Final Four berths.

But what about the programs that missed the NCAA tournament a season ago? The ones that appear destined to rise this season?

A run to New Orleans might not be prudent to predict. But then again, no one had VCU headed to Houston last April. But even the Rams didn't have a consistent regular season. VCU squeaked into the field and then enjoyed a magnificent postseason run. Connecticut, another team that had been nearly as erratic, albeit against superior competition, won the national title.

Below are 10 programs headed for breakout seasons. If they fall flat, they may have no one to blame but themselves. The talent is in place. The landscape is open. And the opportunity exists for any team in this group to make the bracket its own for a weekend or two in March.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 -- and with good reason. Baylor, Texas A&M, Kansas and Missouri should all be deemed favorites. Texas arguably could finish higher than the Cowboys. But Oklahoma State has one of the top freshmen in the country who few discuss outside of the region in LeBryan Nash. He could be a star by midseason. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford has assembled a cast that is more apt to run this season and cause havoc the way he's envisioned. The Cowboys have a loaded schedule after picking up a challenging game versus Pitt at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 10. Oklahoma State may still finish as low as fifth or sixth in the Big 12. But if they get into the NCAA field, consider the Cowboys a potential breakthrough team with an ability to cause problems in March.

Marshall: Memphis is the clear favorite in Conference USA. But the Thundering Herd have two guards -- DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts -- who can match up with any of the players on the Tigers. Marshall has plenty to prove to be worthy of a team that should be taken seriously. There are a number of nonconference games -- Belmont, Iona, West Virginia and Cincinnati -- that will show if Marshall is worthy of significant hype. And of course the Herd must make Huntington a tough place to play and be consistent to nudge at Memphis throughout the winter. If Marshall does that, you'll take the Herd seriously in March.

Harvard: The Crimson are the pick to win the Ivy. They technically won a share of the regular-season title with Princeton last season. But Harvard lost the playoff game against the Tigers on a buzzer-beater and then got blasted at Oklahoma State in the NIT. Harvard is finally ready to be the Ivy leader from the season's start to its finish. Coach Tommy Amaker has the core of his team returning, and Harvard can compete with most teams in the country. Keith Wright is a legit All-America candidate. Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, Christian Webster and Oliver McNally are all experienced. The Crimson can make a name for themselves with a win at Connecticut on Dec. 8, easily the most recognizable game on the schedule. But if not, don't fade on Harvard during the winter. This team will be relevant in March and a trendy first-weekend upset pick.

Detroit: Slaying Butler in the Horizon League has been like the search for the Holy Grail for conference opponents. Milwaukee thought it had the Bulldogs beaten when it hosted the conference tournament title game, only to lose. Detroit has the personnel to dethrone Butler, even with Eli Holman's status in doubt. The majority of coaches in the league tab the Titans as the team to beat and the most talented with Ray McCallum Jr., Chase Simon, Nick Minnerath and Doug Anderson. Members of the Valparaiso staff said last week that the Titans look like a formidable Big Ten team when they step on the court. Detroit has the opportunity to make the NCAAs with a solid schedule. Get there, and the Titans will be a hard out.

Creighton: Greg McDermott was no fool when he left Iowa State on his own terms and seized the Bluejays' job once Dana Altman went to Oregon last year. McDermott had been in the Missouri Valley at Northern Iowa and seen the success and potential of arguably the top job in the conference. The Bluejays have a number of hidden gems who are flying under the national radar in Doug McDermott, Greg Echenique and Antoine Young. The problem for Creighton is that the schedule could have been stronger. It may need to have a significant run during the Valley tournament, which won't be easy at all due to the strength of Wichita State and Indiana State, to ensure a bid. But once they're in, the Bluejays have the personnel in the right positions to be a serious pest.

New Mexico: Coach Steve Alford is going through a bit of a renaissance in Albuquerque. The Lobos had a big-time run two seasons ago but then took a dip last season. The ability to bounce back quickly will be on display in 2011-12. Alford has found the right mix of four-year transfers (Drew Gordon and Demetrius Walker), hidden gems out of high school (Kendall Williams and A.J. Hardeman) and an international sharp shooter (Australia's Hugh Greenwood) to put together a conference champ. The Lobos will have to manage the nonconference well and get past UNLV, but this team has the ability to be a second-weekend squad in the tournament.

Saint Louis: Rick Majerus had a horrendous personal year with the death of his mother and multiple injuries and illnesses. He's also had to deal with the suspensions of his two best players. But he seems energized this fall and has a team that is committed to making serious strides in the A-10. Kwamain Mitchell is back after a suspension. He joins Mike McCall and Kyle Cassity as the core of this team. Majerus put together a challenging slate of nonconference games, giving the Billikens ample tests to see if they're worthy of the praise. Xavier and Temple are the standards in the A-10. St. Bonaventure is a legitimate upstart with perhaps the best all-around player in the league in Andrew Nicholson. But Saint Louis should a formidable team, poised to get Majerus back to the NCAA tournament.

Virginia: The plan at Washington State was to get players out of high schools and take chances, in hopes they develop and reach their potential. The Cougars did, and Tony Bennett got them to the NCAA tournament. Wazzu's program isn't close to Virginia's. The Cavs have more resources, finances and access to players. Still, Bennett hasn't deviated from his plan. And now that Mike Scott is healthy inside, Bennett has a team that gets him, his style and his commitment to defense. The Cavs should be able to score and close games, rather than sit on the doorstep, unable to get significant wins. The timing is perfect for Virginia, too. The ACC is in a rebuilding mode outside of North Carolina, Duke and to some extent Florida State. The rest of the league is in flux, giving Virginia ample chances for wins and to establish itself as a top-four team en route to the NCAAs.

Oregon: The Ducks have the Nike resources, the state-of-the-art everything and have been consistently recruiting talented players to the Northwest from urban centers in the Midwest -- regardless of the coach. Dana Altman also fully understood the need to infuse a few transfers, one is a risk in Wake Forest's Tony Woods, and another is a lock for success in Louisiana Tech graduate Olu Ashaolu. The infusion of newcomer Jabari Brown, who was a hit on a summer trip to Italy, is a game-changer for the Ducks. Altman said Brown still needs to be consistent, but who doesn't at this stage in the season? Oregon has a challenging schedule, which includes opening at Vanderbilt, so be patient with the Ducks. In a Pac-12 where there is no clear favorite (not Cal, UCLA, Washington or Arizona), the opportunity is there for Oregon to surprise. The Ducks won the CBI tournament over Altman's old team, Creighton. The natural next step will be the NCAAs.

Long Beach State: Dan Monson has had a long road back to the point where he feels comfortable in the game. He left Gonzaga to try to rebuild Minnesota after NCAA violations. He wasn't able to turn that program around on a consistent basis. Now he's done that at Long Beach State. The 49ers were atop the Big West last season but didn't win the conference tournament. Long Beach will have to fend off Orlando Johnson and UC Santa Barbara again, but with Casper Ware and Larry Anderson, the 49ers should prevail. Long Beach has a monster nonconference schedule that could set up an at-large berth if it falls short in the Big West tourney. Long Beach will have the talent to win a game in March.

Saint Louis is in the midst of a Canadian tour, prepping to be the new challenger to Xavier in the Atlantic 10.

The Billikens will be just the latest team to take a turn trying to catch the Musketeers, who finished 15-1 and won another league title last season.

Temple has for the most part remained a consistent challenger. The Owls tied for the regular-season title in 2010 and finished just one game back last season. Richmond has had a recent run under Chris Mooney. Dayton, George Washington, Saint Joseph's and, at times, Duquesne and Rhode Island have flirted with reaching the top of the league.

But let's be honest: The A-10 has become Xavier's world, and everyone else is living in it for the foreseeable future.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see Xavier as a dark-horse Final Four team or even standing at the end," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "The program, the university seek domination. Some schools seek wins; others seek championships. They're seeking championships.

"They are also great front-runners. When they get out ahead of you, they want to crush you."

XU's domination of late has been quite remarkable and is akin to what Gonzaga has done in the West Coast Conference. Xavier has been in the NCAA tournament 10 of the past 11 seasons. The Musketeers have won or shared the league title five years in a row. Two years ago, in Chris Mack's first season after taking over for Sean Miller, the Musketeers reached the Sweet 16. They have made appearances in the Elite Eight.

And ticket sales, according to XU athletic director Mike Bobinski, are at 97 percent capacity with the Muskies drawing an average of 10,098 in an arena that seats 10,250.

"With the world around us, in order for us to stay relevant, we don't try to be good every three or four years," Bobinski said. "We try to be as good as we can be every year. We consciously talk about it."

Bobinski locked up Mack, an X alumnus, with a new seven-year deal after last season. Mack could have entertained serious attempts by Missouri, NC State and Tennessee but declined. Sean Miller, Thad Matta and the late Skip Prosser moved on to better-paying and higher-profile jobs at the time. But Mack stayed put, and the consistency will only help Xavier continue to be the team to chase in the A-10.

Martelli said the Musketeers have created a separation from the others in their ability to get nonconference home games, lining up schools like Georgia, Purdue and Vanderbilt for home-and-home series.

"Not too many A-10 teams can get those games," Martelli said, with Temple being one of the lone exceptions.

The return of Tu Holloway gives the Musketeers a star attraction at the point. Having big man Kenny Frease, Jeff Robinson, Mark Lyons and a healthy Brad Redford returning gives the Musketeers plenty of offensive options.

Saint Louis, with Kwamain Mitchell and Mike McCall leading the way, as well as a talented but young Temple team led by Juan Fernandez, are the two likely challengers to Xavier.

Richmond is now a perennial contender under Mooney, but the Spiders are rebuilding a bit after losing Kevin Anderson, Justin Harper and Dan Geriot off last season's Sweet 16 squad. Dayton has also been in the mix as well. The Flyers had a coaching change in the spring as Brian Gregory left for Georgia Tech and Archie Miller, a former assistant to his brother Sean Miller at Arizona, was hired to keep the Flyers in the mix. Dayton has the facilities, the support and the history to be a regular contender, but hasn't been a regular in the NCAA tournament like Xavier.

"Our league has to have more promotion," Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. "I think this league has been as tough as it's ever been. Xavier has been above everyone else. The players really do develop. But there are some good coaches in this league. I see these Big East teams that win 17 or 18 games, and what's the difference? Our top to bottom deserves more credit. We've won 109 games in five years. There are a lot of teams that don't want to play you home and away."

Baron added in his former team and alma mater St. Bonaventure as a possible sleeper because of the return of seniors Andrew Nicholson and Michael Davenport, two consistent scorers for the Bonnies.

"It's the same old stuff; we all have to overachieve," Baron said. "But the perception should be that this is a helluva league with a lot of good coaches. We don't get the splash."

No one will until there is a consistent challenger to Xavier. Plenty of teams take turns and have significant runs in the conference and in the NCAA tournament. But maintaining that consistency has been the biggest chore.

"We've got a lead dog and a strong middle that's chasing," Martelli said of the conference. "You need universitywide commitment, you need creative scheduling, you need effective recruiting, and you need to catch a break and you need a player who can help get you there. Xavier has handled being the target. But we've had other good teams, and the challenge in our league is to promote a team, like Saint Louis that isn't in our time zone, as a postseason team."

Ultimately, Xavier has, as Martelli said, exceeded its ceiling nearly every season. The rest of the programs have to do so as well to keep up with the Musketeers.

As Xavier and Saint Louis prepare for their respective exhibition openers Tuesday night, both teams enter the season without two players each was counting on when the fall semester began.

The Musketeers lost junior guard Brad Redford, their top 3-point shooter at 42.5 percent (48 3s) last season, to a season-ending ACL knee injury. Impact 6-foot-7 freshman Justin Martin was ruled academically ineligible for the year, although he still can practice.

Saint Louis suspended junior point guard Kwamain Mitchell (15.9 ppg, 3 apg) and junior forward Willie Reed (12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg) for an alleged sexual assault of a female student in May, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The school wouldn't comment beyond saying they were not enrolled in school and wouldn't divulge any more information because of privacy concerns. The Post-Dispatch reported that a one-year ban from school was recommended, but through an appeal it was dropped to one semester. Reed is expected to transfer to Kansas State, while Mitchell probably will return in January at the end of his suspension.

Xavier can recover enough to compete for the Atlantic 10 title with Temple, Dayton and Richmond. Saint Louis likely cannot.

"We'll be thinner in the backcourt, but it's not going to change a lot of what we do," said second-year Xavier coach Chris Mack, whose Musketeers went 26-9 in his first season and reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Kansas State in a thrilling contest in Salt Lake City. "We have to watch beating up our perimeter players. We need to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year, so we have to monitor our minutes."

The Musketeers still have plenty of experience in 6-foot junior guard Tu Holloway, 6-5 senior guard Dante Jackson and 6-1 sophomore guard Mark Lyons. Losing Redford, whom Mack called the best shooter in the country, means they won't get that scoring pop off the bench. Seeing Martin in practice gives Mack a taste of what could have been. He was "the furthest along of any of the freshmen, but that's now irrelevant for this season. [Martin] has a great IQ for the game and can certainly shoot the ball. He has size on the wing and gave us more versatility. We're smaller in the backcourt without Justin."

SLU was a trendy pick to compete for an A-10 title after a strong finish last season at 11-5, 23-13 overall in what was Rick Majerus' best record in his three years at the school. Getting Mitchell back in time for the A-10 schedule is important because the alternative is starting a freshman at the point with either Jordair Jett or Mike McCall in contention. Losing Reed for the season means the Billikens lose their top frontcourt player, which means 6-11 freshman Rob Loe from New Zealand may start.

"We were a good team, but it's hard to lose two all-league players," Majerus said. "You can't go all young. But we've got to deal with it. We might be the youngest team in the country two years in a row. We won't have a senior. We'll have two juniors, playing four freshmen, possibly starting one or two freshmen."

The Billikens should get even more production out of 6-8 Australian sophomore Cody Ellis, who wasn't eligible until midseason because of an SAT score. Ellis finished as a significant contributor with 10.5 points and 4.9 rebounds a game. Majerus is banking on sophomore Cory Remekun to be a major contributor, too. He ended last season with 13 points and seven boards against VCU.

"We've got nine scholarship players, and the first thing we can't do is wear them out," Majerus said. "We've got to bring along the freshmen, though, and I'll use one walk-on. We'll be very, very young. But I really like these guys."

Majerus is confident that the Billikens will show even more improvement in 2011-12. Getting through this season now could be a chore with a tougher schedule than he wanted for a team that he originally thought could compete for the A-10 title.

The Billikens will host surging Georgia on Nov. 20 and play at No. 1 Duke on Dec. 11. Going to Portland on Nov. 30 before the Duke game will be a challenge. Missouri State, which is expected to challenge Wichita State in the Missouri Valley, will host SLU on Dec. 18. And then the Billikens will go to Cancun for the Governor's Cup tournament, in which a top-three C-USA team in Southern Miss could await them as well as Ole Miss.

"I wanted to play a terrific schedule," Majerus said. "I tried to play Michigan State in a buy game, but they wouldn't play us. I took the Duke game because it was a good game. Next year we'll have everyone back, and we'll probably go on a foreign trip to Australia or New Zealand prior to the season."

Majerus will still coach this team up and make the Billikens a tough out, even with limited numbers. Expect the games to be low-scoring, with points hard to come by against a stingy defense that held opponents to 60.2 points per game last season -- a trademark of a Majerus-coached team. (SLU gave up the fewest 3s in the league with 138.)

Xavier's schedule is even more daunting, as one would expect. Mack said it helps that athletic director Mike Bobinski is on the NCAA tournament selection committee. He won't stand for a soft slate. The Musketeers will be in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas (Nov. 19-22), in which after playing Big Ten bottom-feeder Iowa, the Musketeers will meet possible NCAA tournament teams in Alabama or Seton Hall. On the other side of the bracket, there are conference favorites such as Long Beach State (Big West), Old Dominion (CAA) and Clemson, a regular in the ACC's upper tier even if the Tigers are going through a transition under new coach Brad Brownell.

Facing Wofford, which won the Southern Conference last season, at home on Nov. 27 won't be an easy out. They'll travel on Dec. 1 to rival Miami (Ohio), and that's never an easy trip. Playing Butler (Dec. 9), the Horizon League favorite, facing Wake Forest (Dec. 18), which still has quality guard play, going to WCC favorite Gonzaga (Dec. 22) and then hosting SEC favorite Florida on New Year's Eve makes this schedule one of Xavier's toughest. The annual rivalry game against Cincinnati (Jan. 6) is on the road this season, and for good measure, the X slipped in a road game at Georgia on Feb. 8 in the middle of the A-10 season.

Holloway has been the leader in practice, which is what Mack expected. Junior forward Jamel McLean's development in the post has been a huge plus as well. Mack said that the game has slowed down for McLean and that he has played with poise in practice. "He's a brick house, a real strong player and hopefully he'll be consistent, because we need him," Mack said.

Losing Martin and Redford didn't lower the expectations one bit at the X. The Musketeers still plan on playing for the A-10 title, an NCAA tournament bid and a deep NCAA tourney run. Losing Jordan Crawford off last season's team was going to hurt regardless. But the mood of this squad doesn't seem to dampen under the highly energetic Mack.

"A huge part of who we are is that we're willing to play [anyone]," Mack said. "If you have only one or two opportunities against power-conference teams, then it's a lot of pressure on the kids. For us, we want to challenge them. We don't want to be foolish, but we need to play those games to get ready for the A-10 and for them to be talking about Xavier in that room in March."

When Northern Illinois decided to give Sean Kowal his release this summer to transfer to another university in pursuit of a graduate degree, Kowal said at the time that his plan was to find a Jesuit-based school and get a master's in theology.

NIU's leading rebounder (6.4) and third-leading scorer (10.5) last season, Kowal said he wanted to earn that master's so ultimately he could go back and coach at his high school alma mater, De Smet Jesuit High in St. Louis.

Ultimately, that might be his career choice. But the plan to play this season at a school such as Saint Louis, Marquette, Xavier or Creighton -- his preferred destinations when he finally was more forthright with NIU about his intentions and his choices -- is over.

The reason Kowal is sitting at home in St. Louis, working out instead of attending classes at a school such as SLU, is because the NCAA is investigating whether he or a school initiated his departure from Northern Illinois before his announced intentions to leave.

A distraught Kowal said he met with NCAA associate director of enforcement Dan Matheson on SLU's campus for 90 minutes late last month and answered questions about his intentions. Kowal said he followed that up in the first week of September with e-mail correspondence with the NCAA seeking answers as to why there was an investigation, who was making the charge of tampering and why there hasn't been closure on the matter.

Kowal said the NCAA made it clear in its response to Kowal that interviewing him was part of an information-gathering process and didn't prohibit him from enrolling at an NCAA school. But Kowal said he believes the shadow of an NCAA investigation made him too toxic for a school to take a chance on a player for one season.

The NCAA, as per its normal response, declined to comment on the investigation. Matheson referred all questions to an NCAA spokesperson and declined to say whether he was in St. Louis for the interview with Kowal.

Northern Illinois coach Ricardo Patton, who coached the 6-11 big man at Colorado and then at Northern Illinois, was miffed initially by Kowal's decision to leave when contacted earlier this summer. Kowal said he later admitted that he wasn't as forthright about his intentions. Patton didn't want to discuss Kowal when reached earlier this summer, but those close to the coach said he had a suspicion that someone was tampering with Kowal.

Saint Louis did have a scholarship for the hometown kid and, according to sources, was considering him after talking to Kowal and his father late last month. But those close to the Billikens said there was no contact with Kowal before he got his release.

"As soon as I talked to SLU, I got a call from the NCAA saying I was under investigation because someone had been tampering with me," Kowal said. "I had a very detailed meeting. I told them everything."

There was even a request for Kowal's phone records. And as the days quickly went by, Kowal said he implored the NCAA to stop so he could attend a school before the semester started. Classes at Saint Louis started Aug. 23, and Kowal's correspondence with the NCAA after that date and into September made it even more difficult for SLU to consider taking Kowal.

"I felt that no school would want more problems," Kowal said. "No one wants to take a problem. The NCAA shined a light on me. They projected me in that image to any of the schools considering me. The investigation is currently still going on. But they've made me forfeit my last year of eligibility that I could receive financial aid."

While the NCAA was pursuing Kowal, Patton's former manager at Colorado, Marc Ost, who works for Cornerstone Management in Philadelphia and knew Kowal, set up a deal for him to play professionally in Holland. Kowal initially agreed, but then upon further review declined, putting Ost in an awkward position. Kowal said he just wasn't ready to play overseas.

"It wasn't the deal for me," Kowal said.

Kowal had a chance to do what has been done by a number of players recently in men's basketball and football -- play immediately without sitting out because he had graduated at one school and was looking to pursue a graduate degree at another.

The delay in getting his release, which is based on Kowal not being up-front initially with his intentions and then Northern Illinois taking its time, can be blamed on the school and the player. The NCAA inquiry, though, took this matter to another level and made a player unworthy of an accompanying headache.

So Kowal is done in college basketball after four years, playing one at Colorado, sitting out one year and playing two at Northern Illinois. He has his degree and can still pursue that master's in theology if he wants, but he'll have to pay just like most traditional students.

"It's not right what the NCAA did," Kowal said. "It may not be the end of it with them and me. What they did was wrong, and whoever accused me of these false allegations, whoever did that, should feel terrible about themselves. It's a mess.

"I don't know what's next. I went back to my old high school and saw a professor of mine. I want to teach religion and coach basketball at my old high school. I want to be a basketball coach, but not at the college level. There are too many politics. That has been reinforced to me over these last few months. The NCAA will say they didn't stop me from enrolling, but no institution will take a chance on me. They don't want to do that. It's a real shame the way the NCAA handled this matter."