March Madness: Sean Miller and Chris Mack's rivalry is more sweet than bitter
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sean Miller had just been named Xavier's head basketball coach when he began meeting with athletic director Dawn Rogers about filling out his staff.
Rogers had previously worked with Chris Mack, then on Skip Prosser's staff at Wake Forest, and suggested Miller consider him with the Musketeers. Miller knew nothing about Mack, but during the meticulous process of finding assistants, the Xavier alum's name kept coming up.
"Sean is very analytical, he doesn't do thing by chance, takes time to make thoughtful decisions," said Rogers, now president and CEO for Final Four Phoenix 2017. "He made a great decision and Chris brought a lot to the staff."
Mack and Miller are back together in San Jose, facing each other from opposing benches for the second time in three years — Miller with No. 3 seed Arizona, Mack with No. 11 Xavier in the Sweet 16.
Just like two years ago, when Miller's Wildcats knocked off Mack's Musketeers to reach the Elite Eight, this will not be fun for either coach.
"It stinks. It really does because he means so much to me," Mack said. "He's taught me so much about what to do and how to be a coach. I'd rather face somebody I don't know real well."
Miller was a natural to take over Xavier's program when he got the job. So was Mack when it was his turn.
Miller was a feisty point guard at Pittsburgh who could shoot and understood the game like few college players can. He served as an assistant at four difference schools, including a five-year stint as associate head coach at North Carolina State, before taking the same position under Thad Matta at Xavier.
Miller worked as an assistant for three years before Matta left to coach at Ohio State in 2004. Rogers did not have to look far for Matta's replacement.
"There was no doubt he was the right person to coach Xavier," said Rogers, Xavier's AD from 2004-06. "I don't know anything about basketball — I can't dribble the ball with my head up — but you could just tell he understood the game in great detail."
Just like Mack.
Mack played at Xavier and was a two-time captain under coach Pete Gillen. He earned a job on Prosser's staff at Xavier — later becoming director of basketball operations — before following him to Wake Forest in 2001.
Miller was hired as Xavier's coach in 2004, and Mack worked under him until Miller left for Arizona in 2009.
"Sean has such a great basketball mind and there's times he could go into a game and coach it himself, but he doesn't do that," Rogers said. "He asks the staff their opinion and that's what worked really well, that Chris brought different thoughts and recruited well. He was able to tell Sean what he thought and not every assistant is able to do that, especially with someone like Sean who is so sure of himself from a coaching standpoint."
The friends and former colleagues went different directions, but with one big thing in common: Winning.
Arizona played the first 19 games without sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and suffered through a string of injuries, yet shared the Pac-12 regular-season title and won the conference tournament. The Wildcats eclipsed 30 wins for the fourth time in seven seasons and reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in that span.
Xavier had an even tougher 2016-17 season. The Musketeers lost star point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in late January and suffered through a six-game losing streak while Trevon Bluiett battled injuries.
The losing streak nearly knocked Xavier out of NCAA Tournament contention, but a late-season run not only got them into the bracket but through to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in 10 years.
"Chris Mack is one of our game's bright coaches, great coaches," Miller said. "He's not my former assistant. He stands on his own two feet and his record and what he's done speaks for itself. And I don't know if I've seen a coach take a team that had lost a number in a row and lost such a terrific player, and now flip it and have them playing at such a high level. We're playing against one of the hottest teams that's remaining in the tournament."
So is Xavier, thanks to the work of Mack's mentor.