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March 24, 2017
San Jose, California
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Xavier head coach Chris Mack and student-athletes J.P. Macura, Malcolm Bernard, Trevon Bluiett, Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones. We'll have Coach give us an opening statement and then we'll just open it up to questions for anybody up here.
COACH MACK: Thank you. Obviously we're thrilled to be in the position we are. As I said last night, I feel like we've earned our way to this position. We recognize we have a tremendous team ahead of us tomorrow afternoon. They've been terrific all year. They've got some players with various skills and talents. We're going to have to bring our best tomorrow night to win, but that's what we aim to do.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. Chris, it seems like the bigs have faced a pretty unique challenge at each phase of the tournament here. What kind of a challenge is facing this 7-foot-1, 300-pounder.
COACH MACK: The biggest. Karnowski, he's a load. I think Xavier fans will harken back to Matt Stainbrook. The similarities, they're eerie. He's three or four inches taller than Matt. No disrespect to Matt, he's in better shape. And he has a great touch, a unique ability to pass from his position.
He effects shots defensively at the rim. And Gonzaga does a good job of keeping him in the rim defensively. That's one of the reasons they have the best defense in the country by their numbers. So he's a big challenge. I love our post players. They've played their tails off here during tournament play. And they're going to need to do that tomorrow in order for us to advance.
Q. Chris, a lot of your opponents in the tournament have talked about the difficulty, or how they struggled with your team's ability to shift defenses on the fly. What's the key to making that work? And is that an area in which your team has improved over the last month or so?
COACH MACK: It's definitely an area that our team's improved. I probably didn't give them a chance to improve in it early in the year because we didn't play multiple defenses. But I think we recognize as a program that in order to give our guys the best chance to compete that was what we had to do.
For us, it doesn't really come down to what our opponent is necessarily trying to do. We have to be able to communicate, because different teams are going to attack it differently. With the short turnaround that we have, being able to recognize how Gonzaga wants to attack our zone, our zones, I should say, and how they want to attack our man defense is paramount.
And we understand that. And it's all about being able to communicate and understand where shooters are, where our positioning needs to be, and then playing with our hair on fire. Playing harder. And I think we did that in the second half.
And anytime you play zone you have to figure out a way to rebound the ball. We didn't do it in the first half of yesterday's game. We did it in the second half. And ultimately that was the reason we were able to pull away.
Q. Any of the big guys, echoing the question to Chris earlier about Karnowski, what kind of challenge does he present? And how much, not just being 7'1" but being 300 pounds and as wide and as mobile as he is, how difficult that makes that challenge?
TYRIQUE JONES: I just think we have to come out and be tough and just contain him and make everything that he gets tough, and he has to work harder for it than we do. And that's basically it.
Q. What was the impetus to become more multiple with your defenses?
COACH MACK: Necessity, the fact that we weren't playing 10, 11 guys. Wanted to keep them fresher. We had guys playing heavy minutes. For instance, Quentin went from playing 14, 15 minutes a game to playing 35 minutes a game. And quite honestly we weren't very good at man. And I'm not going to keep doing something if it's not effective.
And I think our players took a while for us to be confident in it, to understand all the different slides and things that we had to do. But I think we're far from perfect, but our effort's been good and our understanding's much better.
Q. Chris and one of the players, if you could address this, I'm sure all the Cincinnati people are tired of it, but could you tell us the story about burning the calendars and carrying the ashes around, sort of when that happened, Chris, when you thought of it, why you thought of it and what it's meant to you symbolically to you guys?
COACH MACK: I know the story is getting a lot of publicity. But I want to make sure that everybody understands that the character of our guys and their ability to fight through adversity and still believe in our coaching staff and each other is paramount. It started with after our fifth straight loss in a row, which, by the way, was a brutal stretch. We had Villanova, three road games against NCAA Tournament teams followed by Butler at home. We were missing Trevon for three of those games, Edmond for all of them.
And even though we had lost five in a row, I wanted our guys to understand two things, the magnitude of the schedule we had just played, and secondly that we were still an at-large team. By every bracketologist known to man, we were still an 8, 9 seed. As low as we felt, we were still a tournament team. They had to believe that and understand that there was still a lot to play for moving forward.
We had a calendar printed up with the game dates and the scores and the results. And I asked each of the guys to write down one thing without revealing it to their teammates that they were willing to sacrifice for the remainder of the season, for the betterment of the team.
And whether they believed it or not they did it. We lit the calendars on fire in a big aluminum trash can. Takes a while for things to burn. I didn't realize that. The meeting went about a half hour longer than expected.
Then we took the ashes, and I asked Allen Payne to go to WalMart and buy an urn. He got there and the only one there was pink with green flowers on it. We didn't think that was appropriate, so he brought a jar that you could see through. And we just called it an urn.
And we've kept the ashes in there ever since. And the symbolism is not to worry about what's happened behind us, but to focus on moving forward, control what we can. And we've tried to keep that urn either at the scorer's table during practice when the players walk in the locker room, on the locker room floor. And our manager has done a terrific job taking it everywhere we've gone.
J.P. MACURA: Like Coach Mack said, it represents the month of February. And we went through a tough six-game stretch. And as players, when we look at that jar, we just know to move forward and that the past is done with and we're going to look forward to playing more games.
Q. Chris, or J.P., or Malcolm or Trevon, with Quentin, as you mentioned that the role he had to then play and grow into sort of unexpectedly at the time, what was maybe the challenge there as a coach when that happens so suddenly? And then I guess for you upper-classmates, how have you seen him grow since then?
COACH MACK: To start off, from day one Quentin has been a terrific defender. And that gave him a chance. He wasn't a guy who was getting blitzed off the bounce, forgetting assignments. He took great pride in his defense. Where I think Quentin struggled at times was his decision-making and his confidence, like most freshmen.
And I think once he sort of got his sea legs under him, was able to play through mistakes, he didn't have that luxury early on because when he made a few mistakes in a row it was easy to pull him to the side, put him on the bench and let an all-conference player go in.
Sometimes that's what you need when you're young. You need an opportunity to make a few mistakes and continue to play through them. And I think his teammates have gained a great confidence in Quentin throughout these last couple of months. I know I have. He's wide-eyed. He's never at one point ever felt like or showed like he had answers or he was giving excuses as to why he couldn't do something or didn't do something. And that's the trait of a great player and a humble kid.
And I'm happy for him because he put in a lot of time in in the film room, and I've been on him -- I was on him last night because he still didn't know what he was doing in the zone. But he's done a great job. And I'm happy for him.
MALCOLM BERNARD: I have to say the same as Coach. Quentin being a freshman, he had to step into that role and become our point guard and our leader on the floor. And I think he's done a tremendous job. He's found his way and he's definitely been helping us, and we've been helping him too.
I think that works both ways. Obviously you have to listen to the coaching staff, but you have to listen to the guys that are around you on the floor. And we tried to do our best in helping him get through this process just as much as he does his best of getting through on his own.
Q. You're able to outscore Arizona in the paint, you're not the tallest team, but tell us what it has to do with your ability to outscore and individual ability?
COACH MACK: It shows that our players understand what our purpose is on offense. Regardless of the opponent, it's my belief, and I hope it trickles down to our players, that good teams find a way to get the ball into the lane. They probably get sick of hearing me say this, that you have to get the ball into what we call the box, the lane, the paint through a few ways, and that's through post-ups, through drives, through offensive rebounds and through set plays.
And our team's really recognized that. The team that can put another team in foul trouble or get in there, usually generally looks at the perimeter or underneath. You're going to draw second and third defenders where if the ball stays on the perimeter, there's no need to bring a second defender. That's an emphasis for a long time at Xavier and continues to be. And these guys are making it happen through their hard work and their intelligence.
Q. Quentin can you talk about your development? And what's the toughest thing you've had to learn on the fly here as you've been thrust into this new role?
QUENTIN GOODIN: I think the toughest thing I've had to deal with is playing through my mistakes. I expect so much out of myself that when I make a mistake I get down. But I give credit to these guys and just putting confidence in me, telling me I have to keep playing, and that everybody makes mistakes, I just have to play through it. I do credit these guys for leading me because they've never led me into the wrong direction.
Q. You mentioned last night, Chris, that, I think somebody brought something up about Gonzaga and you kind of dismissed the question about being two Jesuit schools. But that being said, in a sport where you look around, you see so many teams with the Power Five conferences, these football programs, being able to advance deep in the tournament, is there any sense of pride having your school going up against Gonzaga, two premier schools in the country in terms of basketball without having that extra support involved in it?
COACH MACK: Absolutely. I've known Coach Few for a long time. And I think Gonzaga does things the way that we do it. I can't speak for everything they do. But at Xavier, homecoming is around a basketball game. Parents weekend is around our midnight madness. And everything is so basketball-driven.
We play Villanova. We play Cincinnati, like, our students are going to camp out for tickets. And I don't know if that always happens at a place that has 100,000-seat football stadium. And so we cherish that, and it's a credit to Gonzaga. It's a credit to the guys up here and the guys in the locker room and the ones before them at Xavier, that both of these programs are in the position that we're in.
And I got off the elevator today and was coming to the bus to come over to the arena. And I saw this monkey running around, and I picked him up. And so if anybody sees Coach Few later on, if they want to return that monkey, it's in our locker room for him. (Laughter).
THE MODERATOR: Well-played.
COACH MACK: That was some funny stuff that he had the other day.
THE MODERATOR: The floor is open to Coach Mack for additional questions.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Sean O'Mara's evolution as a player over the course of the season? He obviously started off getting decent number of minutes, kind of went away throughout stretches in the season and has played more. What did you see from him coming down the stretch of the season that led you to give him these opportunities? And if you could talk about his play?
COACH MACK: I'm happy for Sean O'Mara. I think some of the best developmental stories of players are the ones that don't get it handed to them early. I think a year ago about the kid, James Farr, we had who struggled to get off the bench his first couple of years and turned into an all-conference rebounder his senior year and led us to a 2 seed. And Sean's following that same path.
The thing about Sean is he's always been, ever since he came here as a freshman, a terrific back-to-the-basketball player, a guy who knew how to use his shoulder, had a great touch. And our guys really have confidence in him and have always had confidence in him as a scorer.
Where he's grown is he's become a lot better rebounder. He's become a more disciplined defender, and I think with anything in sports it's all about confidence. And I think Sean had some in the beginning of the year, lost it, didn't play as well. And we have three bigs that are all capable, they're all different.
And I give credit to Sean for being able to pull himself out of that rut and play his best basketball in the last month of the season. And we would not be in the position that we're in, playing for a Final Four, if it weren't for a Sean. And so I'm proud, I'm happy for him, because guys that can go through some adversity and aren't handed some things, usually those are the success stories that you root for.
Q. Some of the big names in the program's history have been reaching out to this team, I guess starting with Lionel maybe in Orlando last week. Have you found any one of those conversations to be particularly impactful or do they all just in the aggregate help?
COACH MACK: A lot of them are one-on-ones. They're not necessarily speaking to the team. Now, Lionel was a little bit different. His message was to the team as a whole. And I just thought it was appropriate for a guy that in his senior year, at one point, was 10-9. The team was not in the Big East Conference, really had no chance of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large until they went on a stretch of winning 15 or 16 of the last 17 games, began with a shot against UC, and then culminated in an Elite Eight run.
I wanted him to talk to our team about the adversity his team faced and what his team did to sort of flip the script and start playing their best basketball of the year down the stretch. I thought he did a terrific job.
And guys like Jordan Crawford and David West, Aaron Williams, guys have been NBA players from our program have reached out. Dave was here at the game last night. And a lot of times those guys just pull our players aside one-on-one because there's a brotherhood and a bond Xavier basketball players have that's really, really strong. And so if they have words of wisdom, our players are always open ears.
Q. When you were rallying off that brutal schedule that you had in February, it made me think how does the Big East schedule prepare you for a tournament like this?
COACH MACK: If you can win enough games it allows you to get in. And the strength of schedule that we face, not only in the non-conference but certainly our conference, allows us to be in the position to get an at-large with a lot of losses.
And the different styles that you play against the well-coached teams and the talent and the physicality you play against, I think, prepares you well. Now, what you don't necessarily get prepared for is that finality of you lose and you're done, it's over. As high as you could be four minutes before the game is over and excited, it can be taken in an instant. And our players recognize that from our loss last year against Wisconsin. And hopefully that feeling stays away from us this year.
Q. Curious why, when you started your career, did you take a job coaching girl's basketball? And as you are in that world for a few years, sort of what did you see as your path at that point in your career?
COACH MACK: Well, number one, I took the job -- I had come back from overseas where my career was cut short with injuries, and I didn't have a job. You know, I became assistant manager at a video store. And I had free time. My sister was playing varsity basketball. The varsity coach was now moonlighting as the JV coach, too, because the JV coach just took a full-time job and didn't have the time to coach, and found out that my sister, her brother had just come back from overseas.
And coach said, hey, would you want to coach? And I was like, girls basketball? Really? But it was awesome. First year I think we were like 17-4. I thought I was John Wooden. JV coach, and it was like you couldn't mess with my set plays.
The very next year at the same school we were 4-17 because they moved all five kids up to varsity that were sophomores. So that was a lesson in humility.
And to be honest with you, I coached girls basketball because it was a job that I earned and I got. And it's basketball. And I was in charge of my own team. I wasn't an assistant coach.
Then I became a varsity coach, would take my varsity team over to Skip's practices for four years and eventually he hired me as director of operations. I learned a whole lot as a varsity coach.
There's so many good coaches around the country, elementary school, high school, girls, guys, boys, girls, doesn't matter. But a lot of them don't get their shot. And I'm forever grateful for Skip Prosser for giving me a shot.
Q. How is it you ended up hiring Luke Murray, and what's he brought to the staff?
COACH MACK: Luke has been a Xavier fan for a long time. I first got to know Luke through our recruitment of Tu Holloway when Sean was the head coach, a guy by the name of Emanuel "Book" Richardson, who is on his staff, was very close to Luke, grew up in the same AAU program, if you will.
That's how I got to know Luke. And as I've grown into the job here, he spread his wings and became assistant coach.
He's been at Wagner; at he's been Towson, been at Fairfield. Or he went to Fairfield, and he's certainly been at Rhode Island with Danny Hurley and very impressed with his ability to recruit and his ability to connect with players. And I think he's really grown into being a terrific assistant coach with Xs and Os, not to mention I love the movie "Caddyshack." No, I really do. It's hell of a movie if you haven't seen it.
Q. What does Sister Fleming mean to this team, seems like everybody has a favorite story to share with her?
COACH MACK: Sister Fleming, she's been with the program well before I was a student-athlete at Xavier. And the amount of, not just basketball players but student-athletes across the board at Xavier that she's helped in so many ways, whether it was figuring out a career choice, whether it was making sure they didn't fail a class, making sure that they understood that books came before basketball, but make no mistake, Sister plays to win. She wants to win.
And she's been the primary reason outside of our players' motivation when they first get to Xavier for the graduation streak of over 100 straight basketball players from our program that dates back to 1985.
Since 1985 there's never been a player that's finished his eligibility at Xavier and doesn't hold their degree.
And, again, players and their families are very responsible for that because that's one of the reasons they chose Xavier, but Sister's been very instrumental in that as well.
Q. Based on NCAA Tournament results, the results would seem to be in line with like preseason rankings for you guys, you obviously said that outside expectations are not something that you really concern yourself with. What was your expectation for this group at the outset, and have they met that?
COACH MACK: Well, we set goals. And I'm going to continue to keep those sort of goals in-house. But my expectations are to continue to improve and get better every single day. And I know that's really cliche, but we set some lofty goals.
And if you fall short of them, that's okay. But not improving, not coming to practice with a great attitude and great effort isn't okay. So in terms of whether we've exceeded or matched or underachieved to other people's expectations, we really don't concern ourselves with that.
I am proud of this group because when you set off to start a season, you never know what pitfalls or roadblocks you're going to come across. And there's always going to be some type of adversity through the year. How your team handles it usually reveals the type of team that you have. And our team handled it extremely well and for that I'm really proud of our team.
Q. Not that Xavier in the Big East or Gonzaga are a mid-major in any way, but it does seem like the makeup of the at-large field in recent years has skewed toward the Power Five football leagues. Do you think the presence of one of the two of you will help maybe reverse that trend?
COACH MACK: I don't know. It's an awkward question, because I know there's five major conferences with football, but we feel like, being in the Big East, when you get seven teams out of your 10 in the NCAA Tournament, and your regular season and league champ a year ago won the national championship, it just feels like an awkward question.
I know everybody wants to label you and box you in, but with these two programs, the success they had, I mean, the amount of money and the resources that Xavier and Gonzaga put up compared to some of the middling teams in the Power Five, it's apples and oranges. And that is a big reason why both programs have been able to sustain a whole lot of success recently.
Q. You mentioned some kind of relationship with Mark. If you don't mind me asking, could you expound on the extent of that relationship; and do you ever run into him on the recruiting trail, go head to head for guys?
COACH MACK: Yeah, I mean, we don't butt heads on the recruiting trail. Every once in a while with a transfer -- and we're 0-for-2, by the way -- but I've gotten to know him on the road recruiting. Not that we're looking at the same players, but all these kids are national kids and they play in the same tournaments.
And then Nike has a trip for head coaches once a year. And I've gotten to know him. He loves to fish. And I love to fish, too. I'm just in Cincinnati at the Ohio River and he's fishing for trout in his backyard. So it's a little different. I go carp fishing. But I love to fish.
And I love to hear his stories. And Mark to me is a guy that knows who he is. He's a family guy. He's as down to earth as it gets. And I can connect and I like guys like that. Not tomorrow. But I like guys like that.
Q. The fact that you're in the Big East and the fact that you talk about the resources, is Xavier the kind of place where a coach, a successful coach, can spend their entire career?
COACH MACK: If they don't fire you. Yeah. I mean, if you want me to expand on it, I'll say, yeah. It might not have been that way 10 years ago, 15 years ago. But I think when you look around and you see the success that we've had versus other programs, I think when you look at the league that we're in, the stats that I rattled off before, and understand that a couple of those guys that left Xavier to go to different jobs spent a large part of their professional and personal life in Cincinnati with Xavier close to their heart.
So I don't think there's any coach in the NBA, in college, in high school, that can say, hey, I'm here forever. But when you have what we have at Xavier, it's special. And I don't take that for granted.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
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