TUCSON, Ariz. – It was just some “wishful thinking’’ that came up during a conversation between good friends Sean Miller and Thad Matta.
If Miller’s sixth-seeded Arizona team were to win its first two games in the NCAA tournament and Matta’s Ohio State were to win its, the two would have a chance to meet on the court and shake hands — with one of their teams moving on to the Elite Eight.
Sure enough, wishful thinking became reality, and Arizona (27-7) will meet Ohio State (28-7) on Thursday afternoon in a West Regional semifinal at the Staples Center.
“You know how that sounds better than reality, but here we are, and it’s exciting,” Miller said Monday regarding his conversation with his one-time mentor. “I don’t want to make too much of it — my relationship with him — because this is about the players on both teams.
“There’s a lot at stake here. I think both of us know that. I don’t think we’ll talk a whole lot between now and then, but if I were to lose in this round, I will always pull for him and hope that he does well.”
If Thursday’s meeting is anything like the last one between the two friends, it will go down as a classic. Six years ago, then-No. 1 Ohio State, coached by Matta, came back from a nine-point deficit with 2:54 left, forced overtime and won going away against the unranked Xavier, coached by Miller, to survive and advance.
Miller called it “one of the greatest games in the NCAA tournament maybe over the last 10 years.”
“I really thought it was going to be Greg Oden’s last game, and it looked that way, but they made an incredible shot,” Miller said of an Ohio State 3-pointer to send it into overtime. “We moved on, and they moved on. They went on to almost win the national championship.”
Six years later, here they are again. Former assistant coaches at Miami of Ohio, Matta left to became head coach at Xavier, where he later hired Miller as an assistant. When Matta left the Musketeers for the job with the Buckeyes, Miller took over.
“Thad Matta is probably my best friend in coaching,” Miller said. “He’s a guy that means a lot to me. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. We’ve worked together, both as assistant coaches, and I was fortunate to be brought up as an assistant coach at Xavier when he was the head coach. I learned a lot from him and had a great time together, and because of that, we know Ohio State very well.”
How well will be determined on Thursday.
Arizona is likely to have an advantage when it comes to the atmosphere. For the last two weeks – in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament and last weekend in Salt Lake City for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament – the UA fans have been overwhelming.
With so many alums in southern California and the games within a relatively short drive, it’s expected that Arizona fans will again be in abundance at Staples.
“I’d much rather play Ohio State in L.A. than in Dayton, Ohio,” Miller said. “We have to take advantage of that. We have a short trip, and we are going to have more fans. But, at the end of the day, because of their incredible tournament experience and the fact that they win Big Ten championships the way they do, I don’t believe that the crowd will affect a team like Ohio State.
“I think that we will have to flat-out be the better team. Maybe the crowd will help us play well, but I don’t think it’ll impact them negatively.”
Miller said he figures Ohio State to be the best team Arizona will have played all year, although he was quick to point out that Florida and Miami also belong in that discussion. Arizona defeated Florida 65-64 on a last-second shot at McKale Center early in the season and handled Miami 69-50 in Hawaii during Christmas break.
But circumstances and the stakes are much different at this time of year.
“We have to play a great game. They are a two seed, so I look at them as one of the top eight teams in the country,” Miller said. “If you had to value that, they are probably more towards the top four than the top eight. They have earned it. …
“We know the level we have to play at. But anything less than that won’t be good enough.”