Sean Miller's influence still seen on Chris Mack's Xavier Musketeers as Arizona looms in Sweet 16

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-22 07:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- Look closely at the order of players opposite Chris Mack during timeouts of Xavier basketball games and you’ll see a certain pattern.

The point guard is directly in front of Mack. The shooting guard and power forward are to the point guard’s right. The small forward and center are to his left. There’s a method to this system, Mack said, and that’s to preserve order.

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“If guys come over to a huddle and they just sort of stand wherever they please, wherever they want, (confusion) can happen because guys are coming in and out of the game so quickly,” Mack said. “You’re subbing for match-ups and the next thing you know, you call a play for the three-man and it’s really your four.”

Know where Mack picked up the streamlined approach? From his good friend Sean Miller.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller looks on against the North Dakota Fighting Sioux during the first round of the 2017 NCAA men's basketball tournament. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Mack was Miller’s top assistant for five years at Xavier before Miller’s departure for Arizona in 2009. Now, eight years later and on the cusp of the teams’ second Sweet 16 meeting in three years, shades of Miller are still evident in Mack’s program.

“The list would go on and on (about) the stuff that I took from Sean, from how we organize our program and how we run our recruiting to practice habits to practice plans,” Mack said.

Eleventh-seeded Xavier and second-seeded Arizona tip off at 10:09 p.m. Thursday on TBS in the Sweet 16 in San Jose. The winner faces Gonzaga or West Virginia in the Elite Eight.

It seemed inevitable that Mack and Miller would meet on the national stage, and the reunion was a major subplot in their 2015 Sweet 16 clash in Los Angeles. Knowing Miller as well as he did, Mack started the game with a surprise twist.

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Xavier’s first field goal attempt was a 3-pointer. It was taken by Matt Stainbrook, a 6-foot-10 center who, to that point, had lofted just four perimeter shots all season.

The play was designed to take Arizona off guard so Xavier could get a leg up on the scoreboard, but Stainbrook missed. Although the Musketeers and Wildcats played to a 28-all halftime tie, Miller’s team outscored Mack’s 40-32 in the second half to cement a 68-60 victory.

Several connections remain between the two programs. Besides Miller, those with Xavier ties in Arizona include assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson, director of basketball operations Ryan Reynolds, associate director of performance Chris Rounds and assistant director of equipment operations Brian Brigger.

Director of basketball administration Mario Mercurio, associate athletic director for communications Tom Eiser and Mack were all at Xavier during Miller’s tenure. XU assistant coach Luke Murray was a graduate assistant on Miller’s 2009-10 Arizona team.

“Those are guys we fought some major battles here with for a long, long time at Xavier. They’re the people I’m personally closer to than anyone in this profession,” Mercurio said of his Arizona peers. “The nostalgia and that piece of it was awesome for the first go-round. This go-round, because you’ve already checked that box for a reunion, it’s about two teams really focused on getting to the Elite Eight.”

Chris Mack reacts in the second half against the Maryland Terrapins during the first round of the 2017 NCAA men's basketball tournament. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura are the only players on Xavier’s roster that played in the 2015 Arizona game. There are no longer recruiting ties between the programs, or players like Mark Lyons, who played for both teams.

Mack and Miller still keep in touch every week or two so Miller, Mack quipped, can complain about his “30-4 team or whatever their record is.” Arizona (32-4) has won 11 of its last 12 games and is aiming for its first Final Four in Miller’s tenure.

Xavier (22-13) is eyeing its first Elite Eight appearance since 2008, when Miller was the Musketeers’ coach.

In Miller and Mack, Mercurio sees many similarities. They’re former college players with intense focuses and crisp organization, as well as the knack for turning the page quickly after a big win or a tough loss.

“Both of those guys have that amazing gift of being in the seat they’re in, playing in high-level games where the stage is big and the lights are bright. They understand what it takes to win those type of games. Not just from their coaching background, but more importantly from their playing background. To have that as a coach, which they both have, is a tremendous asset,” Mercurio said.

Miller said Monday on The Jim Rome Show that it’s best not to be caught up in the emotional side of relationships and storylines throughout the NCAA tournament. He said Thursday’s game comes down to a group of kids playing at Arizona and a group of kids playing at Xavier.

For everyone else, it’s also a chance to watch two elite coaches in action.

“I’m certainly biased, but I think when you talk about Chris Mack and Sean Miller, you’re talking about two eventual Hall of Fame coaches,” Mercurio said.