SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe it’s old news by now, eight years after Sean Miller left Xavier for Arizona, making a no-brainer move to a blueblood program where he has a chance every year to win a national title.
But you know what’s not old news? The fact that Xavier keeps getting in Arizona’s way in the NCAA tournament.
For the second time in three years, the Wildcats will meet Xavier in the Sweet 16, pitting Miller against his former assistant Chris Mack and Arizona against the program where he emerged as a coaching star.
“It was probably more weird the first time it happened,” said Arizona director of basketball operations Ryan Reynolds, who played for Miller at Xavier. “It’s been a while since we were there. Obviously we’re really close with Coach Mack. The players have all changed, so that helps. If we beat them, in a weird way, all of us are going to feel bad for them. If they beat us, they're going to feel bad for us. You just have to deal with it. When you’re in the Sweet 16, everybody’s fighting for their life.”
Arizona advanced to the West Regional semifinals with a 69-60 victory against St. Mary’s on Saturday, the fifth time in the last seven seasons the Wildcats have reached the second weekend. But now the conversation shifts to a topic that has weighed on Miller: The fact he’s lost four times in the Elite Eight, including at Xavier in 2008.
From every angle, it’s starting to feel like this is Arizona’s year to break through. The Wildcats have looked terrific winning 11 of their last 12. They’re blessed with a pair of gifted scorers in 7-footer Lauri Markkanen and wing Allonzo Trier, who missed the first 19 games of the season under suspension for a positive performance enhancing drug test. And with the Final Four in Phoenix, the obvious storybook ending would be for Miller to bring Arizona its first national championship since the magical 1997 tournament run.
“I look at this as one of the great wins we’ve had in the tournament because of the team that we beat,” Miller said Saturday.
On paper, Arizona will move on to face a lesser team in Xavier, an underdog No. 11 seed that seemingly lost hope of doing anything big this season when point guard Edmond Sumner tore his ACL in late January.
Under those circumstances, it’s a major surprise Xavier is here at all — to everyone, that is, except those in the Xavier family.
“I’m never surprised at those guys because I know how good Chris Mack is,” said. “They’re grind-it-out type of a team and they play for Xavier and when they hit tournament time they’re always at their best. Obviously they’ve gone through a lot of things and for them to be in a Sweet 16 it’s a testament to how great of a program that is and how great a coach (Mack) is.”