Head coach Sean Miller
March 24, 2009
By Adam Kiefaber
CINCINNATI - Xavier head coach Sean Miller doesn't like to dwell on the past.
However, it will surely be mentioned that Miller is going up against his alma mater when Xavier (27-7) takes Pittsburgh (30-4) on this Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Miller doesn't bring up his playing days often with his players, but on the rare occasion that he does, he may remind Danté Jackson and Terrell Holloway about his experience at the point guard position.
"Only time he talks about it (his playing days) is when he is messing with Danté and Terrell about how good of a point guard he was," Xavier senior C.J. Anderson said. "Other than that, he doesn't really talk about it that much."
Some of that point guard wisdom has rubbed off as Jackson and Holloway have both limited their turnovers to a combined five in two games of the NCAA Tournament.
First, in the 77-59 win over Portland State, Jackson had three assists, four steals and only one turnover. He also scored 13 points, but more importantly the Musketeers finished with their lowest (7) turnover output of the season.
In the second game, a 60-49 win over Wisconsin, the two guards combined for six assists.
Overall, the Musketeer point guards played well. Their next opponent, however, features one of the best point guards in the country in Levance Fields.
"There is no point guard that plays college basketball who does it any better than him (Fields)," Miller said. "That is going to be a real big challenge for our team. When he gets going in transition, it ignites Pitt to another level."
In Pittsburgh's 84-76 win over Oklahoma State on Sunday, Fields finished with nine assists and broke the school's single-season assists record. He currently has 258 assists this year heading into the Xavier game.
The previous record holder, Brandin Knight, is an assistant coach on Pitt's coaching staff. Knight, who had 251 assists in the 2001-02 season, also holds the school record in career assists with 785. Fields is third all-time with 633, behind Miller's 744.
One of Fields' favorite teammates to assist is 6-foot-7 265-pound sophomore DeJuan Blair, who is currently averaging 15.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game this year.
Blair is one of the most intimidating collegiate post players in the nation. The big man's ability to rebound the basketball makes Miller think back to his playing days.
"He reminds me of a player, ironically, that I played with in Jerome Lane. He was the same because he was really hard to deal with because he would constantly get you on the offensive glass," Miller said.
Blair currently has 185 offensive rebounds. To compare, Xavier's leader in offensive rebounding is junior Jason Love, who has 80 on the season. Lane holds Pitt's single-season record with 198.
When it comes to impressive statistics by Pittsburgh, it doesn't end with Fields and Blair.
The team's leading scorer is actually Sam Young, who dropped 32 points in the team's latest win over Oklahoma State. Young is currently averaging 18.9 points this season and is only four points shy of tying Don Hennon for fourth place among the school's list of all-time leading scorers.
Even without knowing all their accomplishments, Fields, Young and Blair are all household names mainly because the Panthers have been on national television so many times this season. Pittsburgh has also been ranked No. 1 simultaneously in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll three times this season.
"We have enough film on Pitt to last us a lifetime," Miller said.
Last week at this time everyone, including Miller, had to take a crash course on Portland State. No one knew much about Xavier's first NCAA Tournament opponent, but it wasn't long before Miller knew that we would have his hands full.
With Pittsburgh, everyone already knows the challenge that lies ahead.
"I think everybody has seen a lot of Pitt," Anderson said. "We are familiar with the players and the program, so they are not a big mystery to us."
The only mystery is if the Musketeers can hang with the big boys and make the Elite Eight for the second straight season.
Whatever happens, Xavier has already accomplished a lot by making its fourth Sweet 16 appearance in school history.
"It is a privilege to play in the NCAA Tournament. Not everyone gets to play and not every player gets to make it, so right now we are just living the dream," Anderson said.
Xavier will tip things off at 7:27 p.m. at the TD Banknorth Garden (home of the Boston Celtics) on Thursday, March 26.
While many will no doubt try to make Miller's personal tie with the Panthers the leading story up until game time, the coach says this game is more about the current players.
"In terms of this NCAA Tournament, the focus is really on our players. For us to be back in the Sweet 16 in consecutive years and the way that some of our players in our program have played: that is the story of this game," Miller said.
One of those players that has a "special place" with Miller is senior B.J. Raymond, who was one of Miller's first incoming recruits as a head coach. Not only does the coach want to advance for his seniors Raymond and Anderson, but his players are not ready to see their teammates' careers end either.
"It is March Madness and for C.J. and B.J., our team didn't want them to end their careers in Boise, Idaho," Jackson said. "And we don't want them to end their careers in Boston."