The storm is coming. Xavier fans' emotions are going to get caught up in the mess that is the college basketball coaching carousel. They'll also have to wait out tough decisions from Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner about their futures as soon as this season ends.
But forget about all that for right now and try to put what's going on with the current Xavier team in perspective. Malcolm Bernard and RaShid Gaston are living out their dreams that inspired them to leave their former schools, where they were stars, for the opportunity to play a role on a team with a legit chance at making a run in the NCAA Tournament. Bluiett is cementing his legacy as one of the greatest to ever do it in a Xavier uniform. Sean O'Mara has gone from a guy who couldn't get off the bench to an XU NCAA tournament hero. And Chris Mack is passing up his predecessors on the list of names for best coach in Xavier history.
That last point was the biggest takeaway from 11th-seeded Xavier's 73-71 win over second-seeded Arizona at the SAP Center in San Jose on Thursday night. The Musketeers will take on the No. 1 seed in the West region, Gonzaga, Saturday night at 6:09 pm for a shot at the Final Four.
A trip to the Elite Eight was the one thing separating Chris Mack from the two coaches that came before him, Thad Matta and Sean Miller. Matta took the team to its first Elite Eight by beating Texas in 2004, and Miller did the same when he led the Musketeers past West Virginia in 2008.
Those two guys are widely considered Xavier's top coaches first and foremost because they took the Musketeers the furthest they've ever been in the tournament, but also because they both had successful stints piled back-to-back which helped launch Xavier from the mid-major to high-major tier in college basketball. Their influence on Xavier basketball feels even greater because they were part of such an important time in the program's history.
There's certainly an argument to be made for Pete Gillen's nine-year tenure during the late 80s and early 90s. He's the school's all-time leader in wins with 202 and he made the NCAA tournament in seven of his nine years out of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, including reaching the Sweet 16 in 1990. However, he was competing in a different era at a completely different level, so it makes it hard to compare his time at the helm to Xavier's modern era of success.
Mack kicked down the door to his first Elite Eight feat by taking down his old boss, Miller, on Thursday night. And, while the game is mostly played on the court by the players, the comparison between the two coaches head-to-head wasn't close.
Tactically Mack's gameplan was nearly flawless and he seemed to push all the right buttons with his in-game calls, most notably his switching of defenses between his man-to-man, 2-3 zone, and 1-3-1 zone, which kept Arizona out of rhythm. As for Miller, his defensive strategy to start the game was probably the single biggest slip-up for either team and there didn't seem to be any adjustment he could make to take away Xavier's advantages.
The most intriguing matchup coming into the game was the forward spot for either team. Arizona plays a traditional low-post center, Dusan Ristic, and a 7-foot stretch forward in Lauri Markkanen, while Xavier plays Bluiett at the four alongside a post player in Tyrique Jones. Markkanen is a talented scorer but not a strong perimeter defender. Miller opted to put Markkanen on Xavier's small forward, Bernard and put 6-foot-3, 205-pound Kadeem Allen on Bluiett. Bluiett immediately drew two fouls on Allen and quickly had sophomore guard Allonzo Trier (6-5, 205) guarding him for most of the rest of the half. The mismatch allowed Bluiett to gain confidence and build momentum on offense as he scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the first half. He finished with 25 points (9-17 FG, 3-8 3PT). Also, Markkanen guarding Bernard allowed him to get off for 15 points in the second half.
Mack's influence on the game went much further than just his defensive strategy. The Musketeers' execution when running set plays out of timeouts was exceptional all game. Xavier had five dunks to Arizona's one.
Some of those were just lucky calls at the right time or blown defensive coverages, but some of them were also Mack beating Miller at a game of chess. For instance, Mack knew Miller would have his team prepared for Xavier's most frequently used sets, so he ran a few counters to those same sets in big moments for easy buckets.
The game-winning play to O'Mara was a perfect example of that. First, Mack having the confidence in O'Mara to run the set for him instead of Bluiett or Macura was a bold call, but also good recognition of how weak Arizona's defenders were in the post. Second, making sure his team understood the clock situation so that they could run their play and still have enough time to get the ball back for a final shot after Arizona's last possession was time management that we don't see nearly often enough at the college level. Finally, knowing Miller would have his team ready for XU's favorite low cross-screen play, Mack ran a counter to that play involving a high-low action for O'Mara that he had already seen work earlier in the game with both O'Mara and Jones.
None of this is to say Miller is a bad coach. He's not. He's one of the best in the country, which makes Mack's performance all the more impressive.
This game itself didn't make Mack better than Miller or Matta. However, the threshold of reaching the Elite Eight was the one thing holding him back from clearly passing what either of those two accomplished at Xavier. Mack already has them in most other categories. He's second on the school's all-time wins list behind Pete Gillen (202) with 186 wins. He's been at Xavier for eight years now, three years longer than Miller was there and five years longer than Matta. He owns the school record for most NCAA tournament wins with 10 (Miller 6, Matta 5). He's also reached new heights on the recruiting trail in terms of bringing in more highly-rated prospects. With him breaking through to the Elite Eight, it's hard to argue against him being the most accomplished coach in Xavier history.
Bluiett recorded a third-straight NCAA tournament performance that will make him a Xavier legend with fans for a long time to come. He was excellent once again and made some big shots when it mattered. His postseason play can only be helping his stock as a professional prospect.
Bernard played what was quite possibly the most important half by a Xavier player this season. He scored all 15 of his points in the second half, including five during XU's crucial 10-2 run late in the second half that took the Musketeers from down eight to tied, 71-71. Bernard finished 5-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from the free-throw line with six rebounds.
O'Mara had another solid performance off the bench, going 4-for-5 from the field and hitting the game-winning layup with 40 seconds to play to finish with eight points and four rebounds.
Macura scored 14 points and impacted the game in a big way without hitting jumpshots. He was 5-for-11 from the field and 0-for-2 from deep, but he went 4-for-5 at the free-throw line, grabbed a team-high seven boards, dished out five assists, and only had one turnover in 38 minutes.
Even with all that, it was hard not to notice Mack's excellence on Thursday night.
Big-time programs will come calling for him, whether it's Indiana or somewhere else. He may or may not take one of those other schools up on their offer at some point, but for right now, he works at Xavier, loves Cincinnati, and his goal of winning a National Championship where he's at has never looked more realistic.