AP – Six years are a blink when old friends like Sean Miller and Chris Mack get back together. When the coaches met up Wednesday in a Staples Center hallway, they jumped right back into their old relationship roles.
Miller is still the serious leader shouldering the responsibility of a major program at Arizona, still wistful about his decision to leave Xavier in 2009.
Mack is still the grateful, upbeat friend who replaced him – and who just can’t resist a good jab at his old boss before their schools face off for the first time Thursday night in the West Regional semifinal.
”I don’t know if Sean has a funny side,” Mack said with a laugh. ”No, he does. I could share a few stories that may either get him embarrassed, maybe even arrested, but I won’t do that. I’m kidding about the arrested part. He’s got a dry sense of humor. He is a funny guy behind closed doors, but not very often. Not very often. He’s ultra-serious. Too serious. He needs to loosen up.”
The bonds between these coaching staffs still run wide and deep, but the friendship at their center will get a little spice when Mack’s sixth-seeded Musketeers (23-13) attempt to pull off a major upset of the second-seeded Wildcats (33-3).
Miller spent five years in charge at Xavier, and Mack was on his staff the entire time as they took the Musketeers to new heights of prominence. After Miller made the agonizing decision to leave Cincinnati, he lobbied for his longtime lead assistant to replace him.
Despite some rough patches, Mack has maintained Xavier’s consistent success with three Sweet 16 trips. Miller has led his West Coast powerhouse to a regional semifinal four times in five years, but he still keeps a keen eye on the Musketeers.
”One of the things that makes this somewhat easier is I don’t have as many ties to the team at Xavier,” Miller said. ”It’s been six years, so Chris and his staff have recruited everybody. I recognized how lucky I was to be the coach there.”
Miller and Mack communicate mostly by text message during basketball season, and they chat more often in the offseason. Although the 46-year-old Miller is only a year older than Mack, he has blazed a trail gratefully followed by his old friend.
”He’s always been a mentor, whether it was when I was working for him, with him, or now that he’s a couple thousand miles away,” Mack said. ”There is not a challenge that I don’t bring to him if I’m struggling with something.”
When this meeting was cemented last weekend, Mack was eager to start the good-natured chirping. But he waited to receive the first text from Miller, realizing his old boss would probably want to lob the first shot.
”It was more of a congratulatory text,” Mack said, feigning disappointment. ”It really wasn’t a very long text. He just said he was excited to see my wife and kids, and completely pushed me to the side, so that was about it.”
The coaches caught up Wednesday between the locker rooms usually occupied by the Lakers and Clippers, chatting for several minutes. Both said their game planning has been relatively simple, since they still share many similarities in their approaches.
“I was looking at our history at Arizona, which you could make the case is second to none,” Miller said. “When you put up Xavier’s history, especially in the NCAA Tournament, it’s amazing that there are some comparisons. The last level is the only thing that’s missing, and clearly they’re here to make that happen.”
Arizona gives up fewer than 59 points per game, and the Wildcats have an offense built around NBA-ready wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Arizona has won 13 straight games since Feb. 7, and not many national observers believe the late-blooming Musketeers have a shot.
That’s all the motivation they need, according to guard Remy Abell.
“As long as everybody believes in each other, that’s the main thing,” he said. “We’ve got to believe. If you ain’t going to believe, then why play? People are probably going to underestimate us, but like I said, we have to believe.”