Two long-time friends in Xavier head coach Chris Mack and Arizona head coach Sean Miller will face each other in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years on Thursday.
“Thankfully, Sean and I made a pact,” Mack jokingly explained on Jim Rome’s radio show. “A lot of people out there don’t know that we made a pact that if he got us the first time, he’s going to return the favor. The way I figure, we have it penciled in to play Gonzaga or West Virginia to get to the Final Four.”
Only in Mack’s dreams.
“Then Chris rolled over on his pillow and woke up,” quipped Miller, who was Xavier’s head coach from 2004-09 before he left for Arizona, allowing Mack to take the helm at Xavier.
In all seriousness, Miller said it’s important he doesn’t get too immersed in the storylines surrounding him facing Mack and his former school.
“First of all, we did this a few years ago and it’s really improbable that we’ve met twice in the Sweet 16, especially us being out here in the West at Arizona and him being in the Big East, but it is what it is,” Miller said.
“I think the thing you find as a coach is there’s certain relationships and storylines throughout the tournament and you can’t get too caught up in the emotion aspect of it because at the end of the day it’s really about the team, the group of kids that our playing on our team this year, and the team and the group of kids that are playing on Xavier’s team this year. None of which I’ve ever coached, and in many ways those guys have never met me.
“So although there’s a storyline between Chris and I ... this game is about Arizona and Xavier.”
That said, Miller mentioned that Xavier’s current team, which beat Maryland and Florida State to reach the Sweet 16, reminds him of the 2003-04 Xavier team.
That team, which Miller was an assistant coach for under now-Ohio State coach Thad Matta, reached the Elite Eight.
“We had a team ... that went through a lot of ups and downs and some injuries and it was the year after David West left and we caught fire. We won I think 14 or 15 in a row and ended up losing to Duke and J.J. Redick in the Elite Eight,” Miller recalls. “We got that far, but if you looked at us entering the tournament, we didn’t strike fear. But once you established who we were, you recognized we were playing at an all-time high.
“To me, that’s who Xavier is this year. You can’t really look at their year or their losses or their seed. They’re playing a very, very high level and it’s up to us to be ready.”
At one point this season, Xavier lost its starting point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury, then lost leading-scorer Trevon Bluiett for two games with a sprained ankle.
From there, Xavier lost six games in a row, putting them on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Since then, however, the 11th-seeded Musketeers have won five of their last six games. They not only secured an at-large bid, they have become the only double-digit-seeded team left in the tournament.
“When I was an assistant for Sean, we always talked about trying to get our team to be its best when the season matters the most,” Mack said.
That was one of many things the two have talked about over the years.
But a “pact” that requires Miller to let Mack win Thursday’s Sweet 16 rematch? That still wasn’t one of them.
“I wish [it was], but it’s always difficult to play against Sean,” Mack said. “But it does beat the alternative of sitting back on the coach at home watching these games on television.”
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