Sean Miller

Man-to-man

Dana Altman

Zones, presses

EUGENE, Ore. —

The son of a basketball coach from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, and the son of a farmer from Crete, Nebraska, first crossed paths a few days after Thanksgiving 2004.

Two small-town boys making good.

They stood on the sideline at Cincinnati’s Cintas Center, every seat occupied, 10,250 Xavier Musketeers screaming for Creighton Bluejay blood.

One fidgets. One fusses. Neither elects to sit. You get sweaty just watching them.

During a basketball game, Sean Miller and Dana Altman burn more calories than a guy lifting logs in a CrossFit class.

On Nov. 30, 2004, they began the first of 15 memorable basketball engagements that have taken them from Cincinnati to Omaha to Tucson to Las Vegas and to Oregon’s old Mac Court and now to the $227 million Matthew Knight Arena.

They are to Pac-12 basketball what Arizona’s Lute Olson and Stanford’s Mike Montgomery were from 1988-2004. They are at the head of the class.

It’s always the same: Altman plays a matchup zone defense. Miller wouldn’t play any defense that didn’t start with the letters M-A-N.

Miller was 36, Altman 46 on that night at the Cintas Center. Miller was coaching the fourth game of his head coaching life. Altman was a week removed from winning his 200th.

They couldn’t have been any more different. Miller spent the summers of his formative years traveling and playing basketball with his father, a coaching lifer. Altman, an Eagle scout, once operated The Czech Bakery in his small Nebraska hometown.

Miller’s only job in this life has been basketball. Altman worked at the grain mill and chopped down weeds on the side of rural Nebraska roads.

Miller grew up in basketball royalty, the mighty Big East, and then coached on Tobacco Road, a full ACC tutorial watching Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams work their craft.

Altman learned the game in the sticks. Western State. Fairbury Junior College. Eastern New Mexico.

Their introduction was dramatic.

With 21 seconds left in their 2004 get-acquainted game at the Cintas Center, Xavier led the undefeated Bluejays 72-71. Sound familiar? It seems like every Miller vs. Altman game is 72-71 with 21 seconds on the clock.

Creighton’s Tyler McKinney hit a short jumper and the Cintas Center went still.

Miller, a first-year head coach, called timeout with 13 seconds remaining; he diagrammed what he hoped to be the winning play.

At the end of Xavier’s timeout, Altman called his own timeout. He drew up a play to stop Miller’s play.

Bring it, son.

At the buzzer, Xavier’s Dedrick Finn missed a 3-pointer. Miller and Altman shook hands and two coaches destined for a bigger stage formed a mutual admiration.

“I learned a lot about (Altman’s) system and unique style, his matchup-zone and the way he presses,” Miller said Friday at Arizona’s downtown Eugene hotel. “They beat us my first three years at Xavier. And then on the fourth time, we beat them and we’ve gone from there.”

After their four-year introduction, the Miller vs. Altman series was discontinued.

It resumed in 2011, in different precincts, Arizona and Oregon, but with the same sweat on the sidelines. They have now coached against each other 15 times. Scoreboard: Altman 8, Miller 7.

On game day, Arizona has been ranked Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 since the coaching rivalry moved West. Advantage, Altman. He has found a way to beat the best and become part of the league’s most anticipated rivalry.

From 1995 to 2008, every Arizona-Oregon game at Mac Court was sold out. It wasn’t Arizona-Stanford or Arizona-UCLA on a national scale, but something dramatic always seemed to happen in Eugene. The average Arizona-Oregon score this century in Eugene is 77-76, Wildcats.

Jason Terry scored 37 one night in Eugene. And so did Salim Stoudamire, only to be trumped by 42 from Oregon’s Luke Jackson.

Favorites have been treated rudely.

In 2001, en route to the Final Four, Arizona lost to an Oregon team that would finish 14-14 when Jason Gardner unaccountably shot 1-for-9 from the field. Two years later, with the No. 9 Ducks riding a 23-game home winning streak, Gardner scored 21, including a game-changing, killer 3-pointer in the final moments.

Saturday’s game is the most anticipated in this series since that 2003 showdown, when Arizona was No. 4 and the Ducks No. 9.

One fusses. One fidgets. The Miller vs. Altman theme could have a long run on a big stage.

“I knew Dana was right around the corner from turning Oregon from good to great,” Miller said Friday.

Consider the corner turned.

A few months ago, Oregon extended Altman’s contract through 2023. Two days ago, Miller agreed to a contract through 2022.

This could be the start of something big.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4145 or ghansen@tucson.com.

Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.