Two wins shy of the Final Four, redemption stories intersect in Kansas City when the Texas Longhorns and Xavier Musketeers collide in the Sweet 16 on Friday.
The second-seeded Longhorns (28-8) are making their return to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2008, a long and winding pilgrimage that included firing head coach Chris Beard following his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence in December.
Xavier (27-9), the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, is returning to prominence under the direction of coach Sean Miller. Fired by Arizona in 2021, Miller returned to the Musketeers, the school he coached from 2004-09, one year and a few days ago.
Almost instantly, Miller restored the program's contender status with a balanced attack that puts up 81.2 points per game and features five players averaging at least 10 points per game.
"We're thrilled to be in the Sweet 16," Miller said. "It's a hard journey to get here, and I'm really thrilled for these guys, each of them, because it's their first opportunity, and they'll remember it forever."
Texas interim coach Rodney Terry continues a fight that could help propel him into the permanent post, from Beard's top assistant to successor. He led the Longhorns to the Big 12 conference tournament -- in Kansas City -- and now looks to continue the squad's NCAA Tournament run. While he claims he is not thinking about titles or salaries in the moment, it's clear his players are flexing on his behalf.
"I think he embodies what we are and what we try to be every day -- tough," Texas forward Timmy Allen said. "Someone who has been there before, never shakes at adversity, somebody who wakes up and tries to attack the day to be great. When I've got somebody like that in my corner, I'll do anything for them."
Miller bolted for Arizona in 2009 and went to the Elite Eight three times. However, he came under fire during an FBI investigation into a pay-for-play scheme that caused the program to self-impose a one year postseason ban. He has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017.
"I didn't need a reminder," Miller said of his ability to coach. "You know, I never lost belief. I really didn't. I'm grateful for the opportunity, though.
"I have an amazing group to work with. There's a lot of coaches that could win with this team, and I recognize that, but my hope is that we have more in us, that we're able to have a great week and make what we already feel good about even better."
Souley Boum said Xavier didn't need a reminder Miller could coach, either.
"We've been talking about this all summer, all fall," Boum said.
Boum had 14 points, all in the second half, for the Musketeers in their 84-73 win over Pitt in the second round. Xavier made eight 3-pointers, five by Adam Kunkel.
Texas has been getting the job done on defense in the tournament, sticking shooters around the 3-point arc and challenging with scorers inside and out on the offensive end.
New Mexico State transfer Sir'Jabari Rice had seven 3-pointers in the first-round win against Colgate. Forward Dylan Disu, the most outstanding player in the Big 12 conference tournament, continued his exceptional play with 28 points and 10 boards to lead Texas past Penn State, 71-66, in the second round.
Rice said the Final Four looms as a greater goal, but the Longhorns are taking the business of winning to a new level.
"It sounds representative, but it's just preparation," Rice said. "Every single time we are in practice, we're locked in. Walkthroughs, we're locked in. We know a time and place when to play and when not to. Obviously every team has a sense of urgency and seriousness because it's do or die. With us, since the beginning of the season, we had a goal and we set out to complete that goal.
"When we get down and play teams like that that go on runs, I think it's just a testament to who we are as, like, a culture and how together we are. Us sticking together is just, like I said, is a testimony to who we are and just preparation every day."
--Field Level Media