LOS ANGELES – Among the buddies and mentors Sean Miller called that fateful weekend in April 2009 when he mulled over the Arizona job was, of course, Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
It was not an easy time to be a sounding board.
“It was about an hour conversation,” Matta said. “I stepped outside of a restaurant. I came back in and my wife said, `What is he going to do?’ I said, `I have no idea. I’ve never seen a guy jump from one side of the fence to the other as many times as he did.’
“I think that Sean looked at the thing that intrigued him, was that Arizona is one of the, if not the top job, on the West Coast. You’ve got your UCLAs, your Gonzagas, Washington. I know programs are up and coming now, but I think that was something that he felt pretty strong about in terms of just the reputation of what coach (Lute) Olson had built there.
“It was definitely a situation he was going into where they had banners hanging from the rafters when he took the job.”
Thanks to a very long car ride, Matta and Miller hit it off soon after Matta joined the Miami (Ohio) staff in 2004.
“This is a true story,” Matta said. “I took the job on a Thursday and on Friday, he asked me ‘Hey, I’m going to speak at this clinic. You want to ride with me? I speak tomorrow morning at 8 for only ten minutes. Then we’ll get in the car and come back.’
“I said, `Where is it?’ He said, `I’m not exactly sure but it’s around here somewhere. So we left at 6 from Oxford and arrived in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., at like 3 a.m. He got me. At that point, I kind of knew what I was in for.”
Matta isn’t fond of traveling far for nonconference games, which Miller said might be a small advantage for the Wildcats.
“Regular season, I think it’s hard to come out and play one game with the time zone in terms of just you’re off a little bit,” Matta said. “We were fortunate enough to come out here and kind of get acclimated and by tomorrow we should be in good shape.”
Miller said Matta always liked to get home the same day after recruiting trips even if that meant driving late at night.
“It could be like 10 o’clock, and he would give you that look like, `Why don’t we just get home?’ “ Miller said. “And you’d say to yourself, `Why don’t we just stay in the hotel and drive tomorrow morning or fly?’ But it was always drive, and it was always there and back. He doesn’t like to go far from home.
“That’s probably what makes him as great as he is at Ohio State because of the terrific location for recruiting and everything that surrounds the place. But I guess if there’s one small advantage we have, it’s that we have him in a place that he’s not real familiar with, a long way from home.”
Grant Jerrett will wear a protective sleeve on his right elbow Thursday but trainer Justin Kokoskie said he should be “100 percent” healthy to play against Ohio State and will have no limitations.
Kokoskie told the Star that Jerrett caused bursitis in the elbow when he hit the floor in Salt Lake City against Harvard on Satureday. Jerrett said today he still has some lack of feeling in his thumb – because his nerves were affected up his entire arm – but otherwise is fine.
“It’s feeling good,” Jerrett said.
If there’s an image of Ohio State being a two-trick pony with forward Deshaun Thomas and point guard Aaron Craft, Miller would beg to differ:
“It’s not like they’re a bad team on offense,” he said. “I think they’re really good. They’re not as talented, maybe, as some of the most recent Ohio State teams, but they make up for it with unselfishness and togetherness. They have a guy who gets 20 a night, Deshaun Thomas, who from a scoring perspective is as good as it gets.
“They play together on both sides of the floor. Aaron Craft is exceptional at what he does. Deshaun Thomas is equally exceptional at what he does, and they have a lot of other good players.”
Of the Buckeyes’ defense, led by Craft, Miller said: I think they’re a remarkable defensive team. You can admire the way they play defense. It starts not only with Aaron Craft, who I think is the best at what he does defensively, but Shannon Scott doesn’t get nearly enough credit. They almost have two guards that just ball hawk your team and make defense easier sometimes for their other players. But they do it really, really well. They play with great effort and it’s amazing how well they play defense against the conference they played in.”
Miller was asked how he’d “sell” the West Regional, which has a rather battered image this week.
He didn’t try to.
“If it’s the worst regional, good. Great,” Miller said. “I mean, the thing about this tournament is nobody looks back and says, `Boy, what an easy road or a hard road.’ You either advance or you didn’t… I don’t think you can worry about who you’re playing or how you got here. We’re in the Sweet 16. There are four teams here and I know the team wer’e playing tomorrow can win a national championship.
“So we have to focus on trying to compete against them and be at our best. If this region isn’t strong, thank goodness. I’m glad we’re here.”
Similarly, the UA players were asked how they would sell the region because it was “considered the least sexy, least exciting” regional.
That was a puzzler for Mark Lyons.
“I don’t even know how to answer that,” Lyons said. “We’re not caught up in all the sexiness and all of that. I feel like my teammates are handsome, you know.”
Craft and Thomas said the Big Ten team most like Arizona was Michigan State.
“Michigan State comes to mind with the bigs that they have inside that can score,” Craft said, “and also the guys who are surrounding them that can knock down outside shots and drive the ball.”
Added Thomas, “They have similar plays a little bit. They run the floor, transition and rebound really well. So we’re going to try to play them like Michigan State, box out and just play our style of basketball.”
Matta said he and Miller discussed the possibility of Miller’s son, Austin, joining Ohio State as a manager. Austin Miller is currently a junior at Catalina Foothills.
“His son is a huge Ohio State fan and wants to go to Ohio State,” Matta said. “There’s a possibility of him being a manager for us so that was kind of the jist of it.”
The Wildcats appeared loose and confident while holding an open locker-room session inside the Los Angeles’ Kings’ clubhouse.
At least they appeared a different team than they were during their visit to Los Angeles last month.
“A month ago really set us up to be where we are right now,” Solomon Hill said. “I think guys are refocused on on what got us successful earlier in the season. We lost our way a little bit and got happy and started looking past games. But now we’re back on schedule and that’s where we need to be.”
Not surprisingly, Lyons said he never had a problem with where Arizona was, or is.
“Our team is good,” he said. “We lost six games in conference but only lost once to a team that didn’t get in the NCAA tournament (USC). We’re playing real good and our defense is good. Everyone’s stepping up to take on the challenge.”