Xavier coaching tree sprouts two winners in Sean Miller, Chris Mack

Arizona coach Sean Miller talks with Xavier coach Chris Mack between practices at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

LOS ANGELES — Xavier coach Chris Mack said Arizona coach Sean Miller texted him earlier in the week to say hello and wish him well when the two face one another on Thursday in the Sweet 16 here at the Staples Center.

Yes, he was serious.

Then, Mack said, Miller added: "Look forward to seeing the real C Mack and your kids this week."

"He’s talking about Christi," Mack explained, referring to his wife. "He could care less about seeing me."

Mack gets Miller and his sometimes "dry sense of humor." He also gets his sarcasm. He had plenty of opportunity to figure him out while serving as Miller’s top assistant at Xavier for five seasons — 2004 to 2009. And when Miller left for Arizona, Mack was a beneficiary, moving up a rung and claiming the current top spot on the deep-rooted Xavier coaching tree.

"I don’t know if Sean has a funny side," Mack said, laughing."No, he does. I could share a few stories that may either get him embarrassed, maybe even arrested, but I won’t do that."

Mack was kidding about the arrested part, but not about Miller’s not-often-seen sense of humor.

"He’s a funny guy behind closed doors, but not very often . . . not very often," Mack said. "He’s ultra-serious, too serious. He needs to loosen up."

Earlier in the week, Mack jokingly said the difference between the two is this:

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"I’m pretty cool and he’s not."

They both are pretty good coaches who have followed similar paths. Former players (Mack at Xavier, Miller at Pittsburgh) and former assistants at Xavier.

Thursday’s game at the Staples Center is the second consecutive mentor-vs-student game Miller will be involved in, only this time the roles are reversed. Last week in the Round of 32, Miller’s Wildcats defeated Ohio State, coached by Miller’s former boss at Xavier, Thad Matta. Arizona’s victory was Miller’s first over Matta in three tries.

Miller and Mack are part of an impressive run of coaches who made their mark at the Cincinnati school, which has established itself as a mini basketball dynasty.

Pete Gillen, the late Skip Prosser and Matta all preceded Miller and Mack.

"Guys like Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, and Sean carried the torch and simply elevated the program to new heights," Mack said. "Our fan base has come to expect getting to the NCAA tournament, and that’s not (all) acceptable, but to advance . . . it’s a hefty bar at Xavier."

Xavier is playing in its third Sweet 16 in six years under Mack’s guidance, following one Elite Eight and one Sweet 16 in five years under Miller.

"If anybody thought that trajectory was going to stop in terms of Xavier continuing to elevate itself in the world of college basketball they’re obviously wrong," Miller said. "I’m proud just looking at where their program is. It’s done nothing but just increase and get better."

That’s also the case with Arizona, which is in its fourth Sweet 16 in six years under Miller. Since 2008, Xavier and UA are two of nine schools that have reached the Sweet 16 at least five times. Xavier has reached the Elite Eight twice, but never a Final Four.

Fate — and the NCAA Selection committee — has brought them together. When the NCAA brackets were announced nearly two weeks ago, Miller mentioned one team he didn’t want to face was San Diego State, if only because UA has played them plenty over the last few years. Another could have been Dayton, where his brother Archie is the head coach. Another might as well have been Xavier, just so he didn’t have to answer questions about the matchup.

"Chris has done a great, great job," Miller said. "The hardest part for me, and I try not to think about it, is I coached a lot of players at Xavier … There are so many guys that I watched through (the) years give their heart and soul to make the program what it is. When I think of that, that is the hardest part."

As for Mack’s assertion that Miller needs to loosen up, Arizona assistant Damon Stoudamire said don’t hold your breath.

"He is what he is," Stoudamire said. "I don’t know what side he’s shown you guys, but the side I see is a very intense guy — it’s basketball 24/7."

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