UA HOOPS

Arizona basketball: Friends Miller, Matta turn enemies for day

Coaches helped oust UA in 1995, then faced off in epic 2007 game
2013-03-26T00:00:00Z 2014-08-01T11:29:57Z Arizona basketball: Friends Miller, Matta turn enemies for dayBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Out of coach Lute Olson's heartache - and a tiny office in Oxford, Ohio - grew a friendship that will be renewed again Thursday in Los Angeles.

Arizona's Sean Miller and Ohio State's Thad Matta, who will face each other in a Sweet 16 game at the Staples Center, were both assistant coaches for Miami (Ohio) on March 16, 1995, when the 12th-seeded Redskins handed Arizona its third first-round NCAA tournament upset in four years.

Miller appears to remember that day as well as Olson, or any longtime Wildcats fans.

It was "probably one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history," Miller said Monday. "We played Arizona at 9 a.m. Pacific time. We had a really good team and we were playing about 30 miles from campus. I'm sure coach Olson thinks about that even to this day."

Fittingly, after Miller worked under Matta on the Xavier staff from 2001-04, Matta and Miller created an NCAA tournament memory of their own as head coaches. It was a second-round game in 2007, 12 years after that Miami-UA shocker, and three years after Miller had taken over Xavier when Matta moved to Ohio State.

In what CBSSports.com called one of the 10 best games in the first decade of this century, the Musketeers led by nine points with three minutes left, but lost in overtime after Ohio State's Ron Lewis hit a three-pointer to tie it with two seconds left in regulation. In overtime, Mike Conley scored the Buckeyes' first seven points to help give them a 78-71 win.

"They hit an incredible shot and they moved on," Miller said.

It was all part of the deal, just like the loser Thursday will find, too. Good friends, who happen to be well-accomplished Division I coaches, are sometimes going to face each other in the NCAA tournament.

"I consider Sean one of the best friends I have in life," Matta said after that 2007 NCAA tournament game, according to the Toledo Blade. "I think it's unique, but when you're in this profession long enough, situations are going to arise when you coach against friends."

While Miller said he didn't want to make too much of his relationship with Matta, because of the players and teams that have so much at stake Thursday, their strong bond is hard to ignore.

"Thad Matta is probably my best friend," Miller said. "He's certainly my best friend in coaching and a guy who means a lot to me. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him. We've worked together as assistants, and I was fortunate he brought me to Xavier. I learned a lot from him, and we've had a great time together."

They only spent a year together in what Miller calls a "very tiny" office at Miami, but the two hit it off. It was quickly clear why: Both men are intensely competitive, and Miller found himself drawn to Matta the same way players are.

"Thad is just a very unique person," Miller said. "He has that quality where you want to follow him. That's one of the reasons he's such a great coach - the players on his team love to play for him. He has a way of making things fun, and he's also one of he most competitive people I've ever met."

The only difference between the two may be health issues. Matta's competitiveness often strayed off the court into his own physical ambition. The Ohio State coach has suffered for years with back and foot issues, but Miller remembers him powering through whatever he possibly could.

"He's an avid physical fitness freak," Miller said. "It's probably one of the reasons his back situation is the way it is today. He would run 20 miles at a time. He was just amazing, the physical condition, and still is.

"I probably woulda' been just the opposite. I would have been doing whatever I'm supposed to do other than that. In a funny way, that combination probably made us get along so well."

The two have kept in close contact over the years and, naturally, spoke when both of them were seeded in the West Region on Selection Sunday.

"Wishful thinking - we were hoping we'd both be in L.A., and you know how that is," Miller said. "But here we are, and it's exciting.

"If I were to lose in this round - not that I'd go as far as to say I don't mind - but I always pull for him and hope he does well."

On StarNet: Join Bruce Pascoe today at noon for a live Q&A chat at live.azstarnet.com

Sweet 16

• Who: No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio State

• Where: Los Angeles

• When: 4:47 p.m. Thursday

• TV: TBS

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM

Matta vs. Miller

How Ohio State's Thad Matta and UA's Sean Miller compare:

Matta

• Age: 45

• Hometown: Hoopeston, Ill.

• School: Butler (1990)

• Assistant: Miami (1994-95), Western Carolina (1995-96), Miami (1996-97), Butler (1997-2000).

• Head coach: Butler (2000-01), Xavier (2001-04), Ohio State (2004-present)

Miller

• Age: 44

• Hometown: Beaver Falls, Pa.

• School: Pittsburgh (1992)

• Assistant: Miami (1993-95), Pitt (1995-96), N.C. State (1996-01), Xavier (2001-04)

• Head coach: Xavier (2004-09), Arizona (2009-present)

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