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Old friends Sean Miller, Chris Mack to renew rivalry when Arizona plays Xavier in Sweet 16
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Arizona basketball

Old friends Sean Miller, Chris Mack to renew rivalry when Arizona plays Xavier in Sweet 16

Arizona’s Sean Miller and Chris Mack still talk often during the season. “I usually listen to him complain about his, you know, 30-4 team or whatever their record,” Mack joked. Mack took over as Musketeers coach after Miller left for the UA in 2009, and has gone 186-90 at Xavier.

Sean Miller owes Xavier coach Chris Mack a “debt” he’s in no mood to repay.

During the UA coach’s appearance on a national radio show Monday, host Jim Rome told Miller that Mack says the two coaching buddies have a pact.

That is, since Arizona knocked his Musketeers out of the 2015 Sweet 16, Miller would allow Xavier to win in their Sweet 16 rematch Thursday.

“And Chris rolled over on his pillow — right? — and he woke up,” Miller said, chuckling.

While Miller is unavailable to local media this week until Wednesday’s news conference in San Jose, California, he did go on Rome’s show to talk about the Wildcats, Musketeers and having to face his top assistant at Xavier before taking over the Wildcats in 2009.

“It’s really improbable that we’ve met twice in the Sweet 16, especially with us being out here in the West and him being in the Big East, but it is what it is,” Miller said. “The thing you find as a coach there’s relationships and storylines throughout the tournament and you can’t get too caught up in the emotional aspect of it.

“Because at the end of the day, it’s really about the group of kids who are playing on our team this year and the group of kids that are playing on Xavier’s team this year.”

At this point, the ties between the two programs are thinning anyway.

There are no players left at Xavier that Miller’s staff even began to recruit, and the only connections left to Xavier on the UA staff are Miller, basketball operations director Ryan Reynolds, assistant coach Book Richardson, strength coach Chris Rounds and equipment manager Brian Brigger.

At Xavier, staffers who worked with Miller include associate head coach Travis Steele and assistant coach Luke Murray, who was a graduate assistant on Miller’s first UA team in 2009-10, along with basketball administrator Mario Mercurio and longtime publicist Tom Eiser.

But no players, and eight years of distance.

“That makes it easier,” Reynolds said.

What might not make it easier for Arizona: That Xavier is on the same kind of upswing — maybe even more — than the Wildcats are entering the Sweet 16.

The Musketeers have followed a similarly adversity-ridden path as the Wildcats have this season, losing standout point guard Edmond Sumner for the season when he tore an ACL on Jan. 30.

Xavier lost six straight games in February and early March, then went 2-1 in the Big East Tournament and squeaked into one of the final spots with a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament field.

As an 11-seed, they upset Maryland and Florida State last weekend to become the lowest-seeded team in the Sweet 16.

Miller said this season’s Musketeer journey reminds him of their season in 2003-04, when Miller was a Xavier assistant to Thad Matta. Having lost star forward David West to the 2003 NBA Draft, Xavier was 10-9 at the end of January but won nine of its final 10 regular-season games, won four straight to capture the Atlantic 10 Tournament and kept rolling into NCAA Tournament play.

“We had a lot of ups-and-downs and injuries, but we caught fire and wound up losing to Duke and J.J. Redick in the Elite Eight,” Miller said on Rome’s show. “If you looked at us entering the tournament, we didn’t strike fear. But once we established who we were, you recognized we were playing at an all-time high.

“To me, that’s Xavier this year. You can’t really look at their year or their losses or their seed.

“They’re playing at a very, very high level and it’s up to us to be ready.”

If some of that detail sounds a bit like careful coach-speak, maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just Miller, as always, worried about his team being the best it can be.

Mack knows that line of thinking. He said during his press conference at Xavier on Monday that he still talks with Miller once every week or two.

“I usually listen to him complain about his, you know, 30-4 team or whatever their record,” Mack said.

Seriously, though, Mack said he’s gained plenty from their relationship over the years, both off the court and on it.

“The list would go on and on the stuff I took from Sean,” Mack said. “How to run recruiting, to practice habits, to practice plans, even how we stand during timeouts. There are a lot of things that I stole from Sean.”

How to stand during time-outs?

Mack said he always has the point guard in front of him, with the two-guard and four man on one side, and the three and five on the other side.

“Guys play multiple positions, so you never want to draw up a play for your three-man and find out when you’re on the floor that he’s your four,” Mack said. “If guys come over to a huddle and sort of stand where they want, that can happen.”

That’s the level of sharing they have done over the years. But all that gets put on hold this week. There’s too much on the line.

And Mack knows Miller really won’t give him a freebie this time.

“We shared a couple of texts,” Mack said. “That’s about it.”

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