March Madness has returned to southern California.
Starting Thrusday, four teams will try to move forward for a chance to advance in the NCAA West Regional. There’s some familiar faces, like the locals who litter Arizona’s roster, and some emerging faces, like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.
Here are three things to watch for at the Staples Center this weekend in the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight.
Teacher vs. Student
Xavier head coach Chris Mack worked under Sean Miller from 2004-2009, inheriting a winning team and never looking back. But Mack will be looking back — though fondly — at his past as Miller, the current Arizona head coach, will be coaching against him in the Sweet Sixteen.
For his part, Mack downplayed the relationship, but it’s clear that the two are still close friends. They conversed in the hallways of Staples Center a few times during Wednesday’s practice day and had one particularly animated conversation as the Musketeers were heading back into their locker room after practice.
Stanley Johnson went to Arizona with an open mind, now he’s in the Sweet 16
"I could share a few stories that may either get him embarrassed, maybe even arrested, but I won’t do that," Mack said. "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."
Miller and Mack worked to put Xavier on a path to success and Mack, an Xavier alum, has successfully continued it. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by his former boss.
"I’m just so proud of just watching Xavier and Chris," Miller said. "I mean, this is their third Sweet Sixteen since I left. They’re now in the Big East Conference. And 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."
Battle of the Bigs
Yes, every team left has good big men, but this regional features a wealth of them. Three of the four teams in attendance have big men who are capable of changing the game with just a couple bounces.
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier’s 6-foot-10 center, can post up and dish. Kaleb Tarzcewski is a big, strong 7-footer who can run the floor. And of course, Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky who can make you pay from all over the floor both offensively and defensively.
Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook doesn’t want to be a star, he wants to win
"A big problem for us, who is going to guard Frank?" North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. "It really is. Is one of our big guys going to go out there?"
Williams’ big guys are mostly all power forwards but Brice Johnson, the wild card of this group of big guys, has been playing the five. And it worked for a while – he dominated in the ACC tournament — but he’s been shut down offensively in the NCAA Tournament thus far.
"It’s just a few bad games, and I’m not going to hang my head over that," Johnson said. "Just have to be able to put that behind me and keep playing."
Will history repeat itself?
Miller, quite the decorated head coach, has still never been to the Final Four. Last season, his trip was taken by Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Ryan was a first-timer there as a coach, despite the fact that this late father, Butch, was infamous for throwing Final Four parties.
Wisconsin edged Arizona in an epic Elite Eight battle just down the freeway at the Honda Center last year, and it’s tough to think that Wisconsin, a No. 1 seed, and Arizona, a No. 2 seed, aren’t the favorites in L.A. this week.
So will there be a repeat of last season’s West Final? We’ll know by Thursday night.