When the NCAA Tournament field was set, Arizona head coach Sean Miller and Ohio State coach Thad Matta had a conversation over the phone.
Arizona, a No. 6-seed, and Ohio State, a No. 2-seed, were both in the bottom half of the West region. The potential was there for a Sweet Sixteen matchup in Los Angeles between the longtime friends.
Miller said it was “wishful thinking” as they both knew the unpredictable nature of March Madness.
Well, the pieces fell into place. Now, Miller and the Wildcats will be going up against the Buckeyes and Matta, who Miller said he considers his best friend.
“[Matta is] certainly my best friend in coaching and a guy that means a lot to me,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
Miller and Matta’s friendship began in 1994 when the two were assistant coaches on Herb Sendek’s staff at Miami University in Ohio.
The two shared a “very tiny office” in Oxford, Ohio, and actually won a tournament game together, ironically, against Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats in 1995 as the No. 12-seeded RedHawks upset No. 5-seed Arizona 71-62 in Dayton, Ohio.
Following their jobs at Oxford, they took a different path. Miller took assistant coaching jobs at North Carolina State and Pittsburgh, while Matta was an assistant coach and head coach at Butler. But, when Matta was hired as Xavier’s head coach in 2001, he hired Miller to work with him as the school’s first-ever associate head coach.
Then Matta left for Ohio State in 2004, and Miller replaced him as the Musketeers’ boss.
“Thad [Matta] is just a very unique person,” Miller said. “He has that quality where you want to follow him. I think that’s one of the many reasons why he’s such a great coach — the players on his team love to play for him. He has a way of making things fun. He’s also one of the most competitive people that I’ve ever met.”
Now the paths are intertwining yet again, this time with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, right now coaching,” Miller said. “I think his team really reflects that.”
Ohio State entered the season as a national championship contender, and not much has changed. The Buckeyes have won 10 games in a row, including the Big Ten conference championship. Compared with Arizona’s opening two NCAA games against Harvard and Belmont, OSU will be a much tougher challenge.
Thursday will be just the second time Matta and Miller have squared off. And if last time was any indication, fans should be in for quite a game.
In 2007, No. 1-seed Ohio State, led by future pros Greg Oden and Mike Conley, was pushed to the brink by Miller’s No. 9-seed Xavier. The Buckeyes eventually prevailed, but only after a last-second three by OSU’s Ron Lewis sent the game into overtime.
Miller described it as “one of the great games in the NCAA Tournament over the last 10 years” and CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish agreed, ranking it as the 10th-best NCAA Tournament game in the last decade.
Ohio State doesn’t quite have a Conley or Oden on its roster this time around, but it does have a talented pair of juniors in point guard Aaron Craft and versatile forward DeShaun Thomas.
“With that friendship and respect that they have for each other, I think coach [Miller] will prepare us even more for [Ohio State],” forward Solomon Hill said.
When the ball finally tips off at 4:47 p.m., friendship will be put aside. Matta is in his fourth-straight Sweet Sixteen and looking for another trip to the Final Four; Miller has a chance to return to his second Elite Eight in three seasons.
But once the final buzzer sounds and the emotions slowly settle down, no matter what the outcome, Miller will have something to take away from it.
“If I were to lose in this round, not that I’d go as far as saying I wouldn’t mind, but I always pull for him and hope he does well,” Miller said.
•This story was courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.