March Madness is always rife with storylines – and this week will be no exception, as No. 6 Xavier (23-13) plays No. 2 Arizona (33-3) in the Sweet 16 on Thursday at 10:17 p.m. ET.
Arizona coach Sean Miller, as you may recall, coached Xavier from 2004 to 2009, leading the Muskies to the Elite Eight in his final season. Current Xavier coach Chris Mack was a former assistant under Miller and became head coach when Miller went West.
Needless to say, both programs will be amped up and ready to go at tip-off.
Even without that storyline, however, the Muskies are just happy to be back in the Sweet 16.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Xavier senior center Matt Stainbrook said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear after the game (against Georgia State). It’s one of those things that you sort of dream about growing up – playing on this stage. It’s an awesome feeling to be here, and I think our team’s got a lot more work to do.”
Stainbrook led Xavier in scoring and rebounding this season and has been a force in the tournament, combining for 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting to go with 15 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals in two games.
The best part? He’s a walk-on.
“I was on scholarship when I came here, and I ended up sort of giving my scholarship to my little brother who was a walk-on,” Stainbrook said of his sophomore brother, Tim. “He’s doing undergrad, which costs about $43,000 a year, and I’m doing grad classes right now, which is about $14,000. So just to help him and help my family out, I decided to take on the walk-on role and allow him to be a scholarship guy.”
Yes, Stainbrook is equal parts caring, equal parts carefree. He balances out Mack, one of the most intense coaches you’ll see this March.
“I don’t think he ever takes a minute where he is not stressed out or not going 24/7,” Stainbrook said. “When we’re on the plane, when we’re off the plane, when we’re in practice, when we’re at team meal, he’s always got that sort of serious look and you can see that the wheels are turning up in his head. So yeah, he’s a definitely a serious guy.”
And then there’s Stainbrook, who works as an Uber driver in his spare time.
Stainbrook worked 25 to 30 hours per week before the season and 10 to 20 during it. He said it s a “nice change of pace” that keeps him “relaxed.”
“I’d say most people that get in want to talk,” Stainbrook said of his passengers. “It’s fun because I meet people from all over the city. They have a lot of interesting stories, so I enjoy talking to them.”
That sounds great, but what about Mack? How do your personalities not clash?
“I know when to pick my battles,” Stainbrook said. “I think he definitely does a good job of sort of handling me and all that comes with it. But I think I also add that sort of edge. Maybe I balance him out a little bit more. So he understands that, ‘Hey, maybe I can relax just a little bit.’ But no, it’s tough. Everyone has their different ways.”
The same can be said for Stainbrook and Xavier forward Jalen Reynolds. The 6-10 Stainbrook is big and beefy and uses his body mass to his advantage. The 6-9 Reynolds, meanwhile, is quick and agile and overwhelms opponents with his athleticism.
They’ve become quite the dynamic duo.
“Oh, it’s great,” Stainbrook said. “He’s been phenomenal for us as of late. It’s one of those things where it’s fun. I can have a game where I’m getting going and he might not be playing the best, but it’s okay. And then there’s games where I might not be playing my best, but he picks up the slack. He’s phenomenal player. It’s hard for teams inside to stop both of us at the same time. So it’s nice when one of us is getting going and another one can be okay.”
Stainbrook and Reynolds combined for 30 points – on 12-of-14 shooting – and 12 rebounds in Xavier’s 75-67 win over Georgia State on Saturday. Dee Davis and Myles Davis also got in on the act, scoring 15 and 17 points, respectively.
In other words, Arizona better be ready Thursday – because Xavier is deep, and Xavier is talented.
“I think our team’s grown a ton over the season,” Stainbrook said. “We have a lot of young guys. We had seven freshmen and then a transfer in Remy Abell who were all new to our team. We may have not started off the year the best, but we’ve grown so much as a team. We’re hitting our stride right now. Teams talk about peaking in March. I think that’s exactly what our team’s doing.
“We’ve competed with Georgetown and Butler and all these teams and we’ve sort of been on a roll. I think no one should doubt us now. We have a lot of guys who are tough. It’s hard for tough guys to just back down.”