PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As soon as the NCAA Tournament bracket came out, Arizona coach Sean Miller sent a text message to Ohio State’s Thad Matta.
“Here we go again,” Miller wrote.
Matta knew exactly what Miller meant: There was a possibility that the close friends and former colleagues could meet again this March. Both still had to win their opening game, but knowing their history and their teams, they figured there was a strong chance that it could happen.
And now it will.
For the third time in their coaching careers, they will try to put aside their deep-rooted relationship when the second-seeded Wildcats (32-3) and 10th-seeded Buckeyes (24-10) meet Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake.
Neither one likes to coach against the other, especially in the tournament. They know each other and their schemes better than anybody, and each has a superstar freshman and likely NBA lottery pick — D’Angelo Russell for Ohio State and Stanley Johnson for Arizona — that can take over a game at any time.
More than anything, the joy from winning will subside when they see one of their best friends soaking in a season-ending loss. Matta, who is 2-0 against Miller, felt that sting last year when Miller’s brother, Archie, coached Dayton to a win over Ohio State in their opening tournament game.
“It’s hard to play someone that you care a lot about,” Miller said.
Their paths converged as assistant coaches at Miami (Ohio) in 1994 under Herb Sendek, and their friendship formed out of a practical joke.
A few days after Matta joined the staff, Miller asked his new colleague if he wanted to drive to a coaching clinic Miller was speaking at the next morning. Naturally, Matta asked Miller where the event was being held.
“He said, ‘I’m not exactly sure. But it’s around here somewhere. I got a hotel room,'” Matta said, recalling Miller’s response. “We got to Cincinnati, then he informed me we were going down to like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It was like a seven-hour drive. At that point, he pulled the wool over my eyes.”
When Matta became the coach at Xavier in 2001, he immediately hired Miller as his top assistant. Miller, his pregnant wife and their two sons even lived with Matta and his family for a few weeks while they looked for a house.
Matta moved to Ohio State before the 2004-05 season, and Miller succeeded him at Xavier before leaving for Arizona in 2009. The two talk throughout the year, and both times they’ve coached against each other have been memorable moments.
In 2007, No. 1-seeded Ohio State rallied from a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes against Miller’s Xavier team, tying the game on Ron Lewis’ 3-pointer with 2 seconds remaining in regulation and pulling away in overtime. Miller also led Arizona to the Sweet 16 against Ohio State in 2013, when LaQuinton Ross hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to lift the Buckeyes to a 73-70 win.
“It’s been amazing,” Matta said. “I hope like crazy it comes down to something like that (Saturday).”
Here are some things to watch when the two friends coach against each other again:
DEFENSIVE WILDCATS: The Wildcats insisted they need to improve their defense to get ready for Russell and Ohio State, though they had no trouble topping Texas Southern 93-72 in their opener. The Tigers shot 47.1 percent against Arizona. Ohio State is shooting 48.6 percent this season, 10th best in the country.
PERIMETER GAME: Russell showed in Ohio State’s opener that he may be the best player in Portland this week, scoring 28 points to rally the Buckeyes to a 75-72 overtime win against VCU. He’ll find out that Arizona might have the country’s best wing players: Johnson, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dominated tiny Texas Southern. And along with senior point guard T.J. McConnell, they’ll try to reel in Russell and senior Shannon Scott — who dished out 10 assists against VCU.
PACKING THE PAINT: Arizona typically packs the paint on defense, which will make it tougher on Russell to get into the lane — let alone finish there. The Wildcats will give up 3-pointers in exchange, though Ohio State has struggled from beyond the arc at times this season. The Buckeyes finished 6 for 15 from long range in their tournament opener, with Russell going 4 of 7.
LOTS OF LENGTH: Four of Arizona’s five starters are at least 6-foot-7, led by power forward Brandon Ashley (6-foot-9) and center Kaleb Tarczewski (7 feet). That could pose problems for the Buckeyes, who were outrebounded by the Rams 36-32 on Thursday. The Wildcats rank second in the nation with a plus-9.0 rebounding margin and rank first nationally in defensive rebounding percentage at 77.6 percent.
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