HANSEN

Greg Hansen: NCAA tourney brings old pals Whitford, Matta and Jay John together

2013-03-27T00:00:00Z 2013-04-13T19:10:10Z Greg Hansen: NCAA tourney brings old pals Whitford, Matta and Jay John togetherGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 27, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The truth, the whole truth, half-truths, shades of the truth and other items admissible as Sweet 16 munchies:

• Small world, Part I: After Miami of Ohio coach Herb Sendek beat Arizona in the 1995 NCAA tournament, he was hired by North Carolina State and took assistant Sean Miller with him.

Not so lucky to be included on the magic carpet ride to bigger money: Miami of Ohio assistant James Whitford, who found himself jobless.

The job-seeking Whitford drove to Cullowhee, N.C., and found refuge on the couch of Western Carolina assistant coach Thad Matta, who had earlier worked on the Miami of Ohio staff.

Matta arranged for Whitford to interview with WCU coach Phil Hopkins. Bingo. Hopkins offered Whitford a full-time position simultaneous to Matta quitting to accept a spot on Charlie Coles' new staff at Miami of Ohio.

"About 30 minutes after I get the job at Western Carolina, I get a call from Coles, who offers me a job at Miami of Ohio," Whitford remembers. "I call Western Carolina, told them 'thanks, but no thanks,' hopped in a car with Thad and drove back to Ohio."

Now Whitford, who is Miller's top Arizona assistant, and Matta, the Ohio State coach, are enemies-for-a-day at the Sweet 16.

• Small world, Part II: In April 2000, Arizona assistant coach Jay John flew to Indianapolis to interview for the head coaching job at Butler, where he had spent eight years as an assistant. The other finalist: Matta, who left Miami to be a Butler assistant three years earlier.

Butler hired Matta; John returned to Tucson and eight months later prepared a scouting report on Matta's Butler team for the 2000 Fiesta Bowl Classic at McKale Center.

En route to Tucson, Matta and the Bulldogs encountered a travel day from hell. They drove from Indianapolis to Cincinnati, caught a flight to Minneapolis and then to Phoenix and rented two vans for the ride to Tucson.

The van Matta was to engineer didn't make it. The engine caught fire, stranding the Bulldogs between Tucson and Phoenix. Finally, they arranged to rent a 10-person limo. They arrived at Ventana Canyon at 3 a.m. and then lost to Arizona 72-60.

• Small world, Part III: Arizona and Matta met again, three months later, in a Round of 32 NCAA tournament game in Kansas City. The Bulldogs had stunned Wake Forest in the opener.

Guess who prepared the UA-Butler scouting breakdown? Jay John.

Standing in the hallway of the Kansas City arena a day before tipoff, John was speaking to a group of Tucson reporters, regaling Butler's intensity and intelligence. He didn't know Matta had walked up behind him and was listening, doing his best not to laugh.

Finally, John turned around, saw Matta and all but croaked.

"Now you know our secrets," he said.

Matta laughed. "Give me (7-foot center) Loren Woods, and I won't say a thing."

Arizona won the next day 73-52 as the Wildcats had a 38-15 rebound edge.

• Small world, Part IV: Matta hired Archie Miller, Sean's younger brother, off of Sendek's Arizona State staff in May 2007. He immediately put him to work, hoping to seal a recruiting commitment from would-be prep freshman DeShaun Thomas, who is now Ohio State's scoring leader.

Thomas committed to the Buckeyes a month later.

Before leaving Ohio State to join Sean Miller at Arizona in April 2009, Archie Miller was the lead recruiter on current Buckeye starter Lenzelle Smith, from Zion, Ill. He also laid the recruiting groundwork for OSU blood-and-guts point guard Aaron Craft, who committed to Ohio State three months after Archie Miller moved to Tucson.

• Small world, Part V: One of the ways Matta persuaded Sean Miller to leave the ACC's North Carolina State and join the Atlantic 10's Xavier in 2001 was to create a title for him: assistant head coach. Xavier had never given an assistant a title or as much money as it gave Miller.

Before Matta left to become Ohio State's coach in July 2004, he told Cincinnati reporters he wasn't interested in the Buckeyes job. Two days later he accepted the offer. The backlash wasn't pretty.

Three years later, Xavier and Ohio State met in the NCAA Round of 32 in Lexington, Ky., and Musketeers fans booed Matta for two days.

"Xavier has had head coaches leave before," Matta said in an NCAA news conference. "And I think that's something they may face again with Sean Miller."

Matta's prophecy was fulfilled two years later in Tucson.

• Small world, Part VI: In May 2005, Whitford married Xavier women's basketball assistant coach Amber Stocks. He was still coaching at Miami of Ohio. It was going to be a long-distance marriage.

Talk about good timing: A month later, Xavier assistant coach Monte Mathis accepted a spot on the Dallas Mavericks staff. That gave Sean Miller an opening to reunite with his Miami of Ohio connection; he hired Whitford and the newlyweds were together in Cincinnati.

A brief time later, Amber resigned as a coach to concentrate on raising a family. Now, in their fourth year in Tucson, James and Amber Whitford have two little boys, Liam 5, and Spencer, 2.

That's a long way from sleeping on Thad Matta's couch in Cullowhee, N.C.

So no matter who wins Thursday's Sweet 16 game, there is a happy ending to the long and winding road that connects Arizona and Ohio State.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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