Mark Lyons finds home in the desert
TUCSON, Ariz. -- He knew him. Sean Miller knew Mark Lyons, knew him since he was a sophomore in high school, so it made the leap of faith easy.
He knew him. Mark Lyons knew Sean Miller, planned to play for him in college until Miller's career arc changed, so it made the leap of faith easy.
And that really is the essence of it all, why Lyons is now at Arizona, why Miller waded into the turbulent waters when the guard wanted out at Xavier.
But that's not to say that it has been seamless from start to finish.
Relationships never are, are they?
Miller and Lyons are almost like an old married couple by now; they've had their differences, the times when they did, in fact, go to bed angry and didn't speak; and now they've come together, well aware of each other's quirks and faults, to meet at a healthy compromise of respect and trust.
It has worked well for both. Lyons has been rebooted as a point guard, averaging 15.3 points per game and 3.2 assists, while Miller got the final cog for his team, an Arizona squad that is now 21-4 and ranked No. 12 in the country.
"I didn't hear from him for a long time after I left Xavier," Miller said. "And that was fine. But I think what drew him to the opportunity all these years later is that we had something good there at the foundation."
Trust is a big word in sports; a big word in life, really. But in a constantly shifting landscape, where players move on and coaches move out, it has lost, if not its meaning, its depth. Still, it matters, especially to people like Lyons, who is by nature a little wary and at times downright combative.
He liked Miller at the outset, agreeing to join him at Xavier. Deemed a partial qualifier as a freshman, Lyons sat out competitively but went to practice, prepping for his first year in a college uniform with Miller as his coach.
Except it didn't turn out that way. Before Lyons wore the Xavier colors, Miller was at Arizona.
"He didn't show up for my final meeting," Miller said.
Lyons was equal parts angry and hurt, a not-unfamiliar feeling for players tethered to a scholarship signed on the promise of a coach who has since left for greener pastures.
When, a year later, Miller sent Lyons a text about his former AAU teammate Jimmer Fredette, who had dropped 49 on Arizona, Lyons didn't respond.
"There was a time when I had a little grudge against him, after he left Xavier," Lyons said. "I was young. I lost my coach. I was upset. I never hated him, but I was angry."
Lyons didn't want to transfer -- he'd already sat out one year and wasn't about to miss any more time -- so he stuck it out with Chris Mack. He did well for the Musketeers, growing from a role player in his first year to the team's second-leading scorer in each of his final two seasons.
But the relationship between coach and player wasn't always pleasant. Lyons is fiercely competitive, which can be a good thing when channeled properly. It can be less than ideal when it goes off course.
I watched one practice at which it went completely off-road. The Musketeers were mired in a losing streak after their brawl with Cincinnati. Everyone was frustrated and that frustration boiled over to an ugly war of words and battle of wills between Mack and Lyons. The coach, annoyed with his player's body language, first sent him to run on the treadmill. Lyons went.
But the second time he balked, flat-out refusing to run. Eventually Mack tossed Lyons out of practice. That's not exactly unique. It happens at every gym in the country, but it was a telling peek into what would become later a divorce between Lyons and Xavier.
"He's a smart kid; he knows right from wrong," Miller said. "The thing that happens with him, he has a switch inside of him. The good part of the switch, the stakes are really high, the game is on the line and 15,000 people are watching and there is no one who has more confidence than he does. But when things aren't going well for him personally, he lets that same confidence work against him and his teammates. It's constant, talking to him about it."
But by the end of last season, there was no more repairing or talking left to do between Mack and Lyons. The two decided to part ways, Mack essentially giving Lyons his walking papers even while his own roster was disintegrating.
Lyons said it was more positional than personal -- at 6-foot-1, he wanted to play point guard, believing he needed exposure at the position to secure a spot at the next level, but Mack thought he'd be best at his typical off-guard spot.
"I wasn't frustrated at all," Lyons said. "I was happy but it was time to go because I had to play point guard and Coach Mack didn't think that was where I belonged."
About Lyons, Mack said, "Mark is a terrific player. We wish him the best."
Lyons put out feelers to a handful of schools, and when Miller heard that the Xavier relationship was severed once and for all, he called Mack and Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski. The Arizona coach spoke frequently to his former assistant and knew, as he put it, "the good, the bad, everything they went through" with Lyons.
He also knew that he needed a point guard and that it would just about kill him to watch a player he recruited go succeed at a competitor like Kansas or Kentucky.
After receiving the go-ahead from both Mack and Bobinski, Miller reached out to Lyons.
"Once we started talking, it was like nothing happened," Lyons said. "I knew it would work. I talked to the guys on the team. They welcomed me with open arms. It wasn't just Coach Miller. They all made it easy for me."
Lyons is not and never will be a typical old-school point guard, but then again a true point guard is something like the two-handed set shot these days.
His assist-to-turnover ratio won't blow anyone away (it's 1.1-1, 13th in the Pac-12) and his nadir came against UCLA, when he had five turnovers to zero assists. But he's creative at getting to the rim, and when he does and can, he's more than capable of getting other people involved.
"It's not always pretty, but the analogy I would use is to these running quarterbacks in college and the NFL," Miller said. "Part of the gift of a good offensive coordinator is to not try and make him something he isn't, but give him things he can do and try to teach him some of the things he needs to get better at. That's what we're doing with Mark."
And Lyons is listening.
Whatever conflicts or hardship he had at Xavier, he has left them behind on his move to the desert.
He has put his faith and trust in Miller.
And Miller has done the same.
Because they knew they could.