Thad Matta, Sean Miller ready for clash
By Ari Wasserman
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LOS ANGELES, CA – One of the most iconic teams in the history of Ohio State’s basketball program could have instead been known as great underachievers.
And it would have been because of Sean Miller.
As it stands, the 2006-07 Ohio State team – led by eventual first-round NBA Draft selections Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. – will forever live in Buckeye lore as a team that came within one game of winning the program’s first national championship since 1960.
But before Thad Matta’s first Final Four team at Ohio State made it to college basketball’s biggest stage, the No. 1-seeded Buckeyes almost didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Facing Miller’s No. 9-seeded Xavier, Ohio State needed a long three-pointer from Ron Lewis at the end of regulation to force overtime. Ohio State won 78-71 in OT, eventually reaching the national championship game before falling to Florida.
“I really thought it was going to be Greg Oden’s last game,” Miller, now the head coach at Arizona, reflected during a press conference this week. “It looked that way, but they made an incredible shot.”
It was the first time Matta and Miller squared off against one another, and that game still stands as one of the most exciting contests in the illustrious history of the NCAA Tournament.
More than five years later, the coaches – and dear friends – meet again when the No. 2 seeded Buckeyes play No. 6 Arizona on Thursday afternoon in a Sweet 16 game in Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
Miller knew it was only a matter of time before he’d again peer past the scorer’s table and see Matta looking back at him, and it’s fitting that it will again occur in a high-profile matchup that could produce one of this year’s Final Four teams.
“Hopefully,” Miller said. “Because if you play (Matta’s team) it will usually be in the second weekend (of the NCAA Tournament).”
Matta’s history with Miller goes back further than when Miller was an assistant on Matta’s staff for three years at Xavier from 2001-04. Both coaches were also assistants on Herb Sendek’s staff at Miami (Ohio) in 1995.
So it’s no wonder the two have maintained a close friendship through the years, though both are now leading prominent college basketball programs that are located nearly the entire country apart.
They root for each other’s teams from afar, but admittedly neither is ever completely up to speed with the other’s team.
But when Miller made headlines for emphatically disagreeing in a postgame press conference with a technical foul for which he was called – an important play that helped UCLA top Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament March 15 – that got Matta’s attention.
Matta called Miller – who was fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 after his comments – the day after the NCAA Tournament field was revealed, and that’s when the two first realized they could be in for an unplanned reunion.
“It’s funny. I was talking to him about his fine, and he said, ‘If we can just get to L.A., it will be a home game for us,’ ” Matta said. “Then I said, ‘I think we’re going to L.A., too.’ Through the conversation, we figured out we’d be playing in this game. We had no idea. I think that gives you a perspective of how coaches think.”
Arizona already had its bags packed for Los Angeles on March 24 after topping Harvard, after which Miller sent Matta a text message that read, “I’m waiting for you in L.A.” Ohio State still had to beat Iowa State at that point, but that didn’t stop Miller from sending the Buckeyes’ head coach a friendly reminder.
But friendship now takes a backseat to competition, and with both programs eyeing a trip to the Final Four, both coaches respect what’s ahead.
“I know this – the best team on the West Coast is who we play next,” Matta said. “I have seen Arizona play. They are loaded and they are extremely talented. The best team on the West Coast – and that’s no disrespect to other teams that may have been ranked higher – has been Arizona.”
Ohio State (28-7) comes into the game eyeing its second consecutive trip to the Final Four riding a 10-game winning streak, which spans through the final five games of the regular season before the Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament championship.
Arizona (27-7) finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 behind only UCLA, but the 27-7 Wildcats have proved all season they can beat the nation’s best. Arizona’s marquee nonconference wins are against Florida and Miami (Fla.) – two teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have to play a great game,” Miller said. “They are a No. 2 seed so I look at them as one of the top eight teams in the country. If you had to value that they are probably more towards the top four than the top eight. They have earned it. You look at them as one of the elite teams in the country, and for us, we have to be at that level to beat them.”
Matta called Miller a “tremendous coach and one of (my) best friends,” and Miller returned the complement the following day.
But when both take the Staples Center Floor, that friendship goes on a 40-minute hiatus.