Russell: Coach Chris Mack engineers Xavier's improbable run to Elite Eight

Xavier basketball has had more talented teams. More heralded teams. More pedigreed teams.

But these 11th-seeded Musketeers, which stunned second-seeded Arizona 73-71 in San Jose late Thursday for a place in the Elite Eight, are the best I’ve seen since starting coverage of the program in 2008-09.

My first season as a beat writer was Sean Miller’s last at Xavier. I still remember waiting at Lunken Airport for Miller to return from his meeting with Arizona officials, and then hearing his emotional farewell speech days later at Cintas Center.

 

A robust media contingent addressed Miller while his top assistant, Chris Mack, watched from the back of the room.

Mack had an invitation to join Miller’s staff in Arizona. He might have gone to Tucson, too, if he hadn’t impressed then-athletic director Mike Bobinski and earned the job at Xavier.

In the eight years since, Mack has taken the Musketeers to three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. The latter was both surreal and admirable to behold: Mack defeating the last coach that guided Xavier to an Elite Eight – for an Elite Eight bid.

Miller achieved the feat at the end of the 2007-08 season, propelled by Josh Duncan, Derrick Brown, Drew Lavender, C.J. Anderson, Stanley Burrell and Jason Love. That team won the Atlantic 10 regular-season championship and garnered a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, where it ultimately lost to top-seeded UCLA in Phoenix.

Xavier also went to the Elite Eight in 2004 under Thad Matta.

Mack commended his current team in Thursday’s post-game press conference at the SAP Center, shortly after the players’ 12-2 run sealed the outcome. He also paid tribute to his good friend Miller.

“I personally have so much love for Sean and his staff. I know it’s heartbreaking for them because they had a special year, a special season,” Mack said. “And I know it’s tough. But today is a Xavier day. And I’m proud of these guys here at the dais.”

Although Mack was named national coach of the year by three outlets last season, this has been his finest campaign yet. In 2015-16, he had a loaded roster and a stingy 1-3-1 defense anchored by a frontcourt with what seemed like a collective six-mile wingspan.

Xavier garnered a program-record No. 2 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament. It had immensely high expectations, which made Bronson Koenig’s game-winning 3-pointer at the end of a second-round clash against Wisconsin all the more devastating.

Koenig’s dagger three figured prominently in a video shown at Musketeer Madness at Cintas Center in October. It served as the division between the heartbreaking conclusion of the 94th team in Xavier annals and the promise-filled outlook of Team 95.

The current team entered the season with a program-record No. 7 ranking in the preseason Associated Press Top 25. Four months later, it was clawing for its NCAA tournament life.

By now all the team’s struggles have been well-documented: Kaiser Gates’ knee scope delayed his start this season, Myles Davis returned from a suspension and left again, Edmond Sumner tore his ACL, Trevon Bluiett sprained his ankle and the team dropped six straight games including its senior day outing in March.

Xavier never had all its pieces playing well at once until the Big East Tournament. A team in danger of starting the NCAA tournament in the First Four in Dayton nabbed the final bye on Selection Sunday.

Even the end of the Arizona game was precarious, as Xavier trailed by eight points with 3:44 remaining.

Now its future is wide open.

“I feel incredible. Happy. I’m very excited. And I just really didn’t want our season to end,” graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard said. “We worked so hard, not only in the offseason but throughout the year battling adversity. And I just didn’t think it was time for our season to end.”

Xavier (24-13) has never been to a Final Four. It has a chance to get there, but first it must defeat top-seeded Gonzaga (35-1) in Saturday’s 6:09 p.m. (ET) Elite Eight showdown in San Jose.

Miller, who was gracious enough to speak to Xavier’s locker room after Arizona’s loss, said Xavier “is capable of beating anybody.” As his dreams of reaching his first Final Four were again foiled, he showered praise on Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Bernard – but mostly Mack.

“I cannot say enough good things about Xavier. It’s not because I used to be there. I think their coach is awesome,” Miller said. “He had his way with us tonight. He called plays after timeouts, underneath out of bounds. He got his players some great shots.”

By taking Xavier to an elite NCAA tournament level, Mack further stoked the fires of speculation about his value to other programs. His stock has never been higher, and deservedly so. He found a formula for transforming a skidding team into one of the last eight standing.

Mack’s zone gave Arizona fits; his best players were offensive nightmares. Bluiett finished with 25 points and Bernard (15) and Macura (14) were key contributors. Sean O’Mara continued his inspired play in the NCAA tournament with eight points, and Quentin Goodin added six assists.

Fans and former players flooded social media with excitement and well wishes after the final buzzer. Count Miller among those rooting on the Musketeers, too.

“I wish Xavier nothing but a great journey,” Miller said. “I hope they go all the way.”

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