PORTLAND – As soon as the NCAA tournament bracket came out, Arizona coach Sean Miller sent a text message to Ohio State’s Thad Matta.
“Here we go again,” Miller wrote.
Matta knew exactly what Miller meant: There was a possibility that the close friends and former colleagues could meet again this March. Both still had to win their opening game but figured there was a strong chance that it could happen.
And now it will.
For the third time in their coaching careers, they will try to put aside their deep-rooted relationship when the second-seeded Wildcats (32-3) and 10th-seeded Buckeyes (24-10) meet today with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake.
Neither one likes to coach against the other, especially in the tournament. They know each other and their schemes better than anybody, and each has a superstar freshman and likely NBA lottery pick – D’Angelo Russell for Ohio State and Stanley Johnson for Arizona – that can take over a game at any time.
More than anything, the joy from winning will subside when they see one of their best friends soaking in a season-ending loss. Matta, who is 2-0 against Miller, felt that sting last year when Miller’s brother, Archie, coached Dayton to a win over Ohio State in their opening tournament game.
“It’s hard to play someone that you care a lot about,” Miller said.
Their paths converged as assistant coaches at Miami (Ohio) in 1994 under Herb Sendek, and their friendship formed out of a practical joke.
A few days after Matta joined the staff, Miller asked his new colleague if he wanted to drive to a coaching clinic Miller was speaking at the next morning. Naturally, Matta asked Miller where the event was being held.
“He said, ‘I’m not exactly sure. But it’s around here somewhere. I got a hotel room,’ ” Matta said, recalling Miller’s response. “We got to Cincinnati, then he informed me we were going down to like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It was like a seven-hour drive. At that point, he pulled the wool over my eyes.”
When Matta became the coach at Xavier in 2001, he immediately hired Miller as his top assistant.
Matta moved to Ohio State before the 2004-05 season, and Miller succeeded him at Xavier before leaving for Arizona in 2009. The two talk throughout the year, and both times they’ve coached against each other have been memorable moments.
In 2007, No. 1-seeded Ohio State rallied from a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes against Miller’s Xavier team, tying the game on Ron Lewis’ 3-pointer with 2 seconds remaining in regulation and pulling away in overtime. Miller also led Arizona to the Sweet 16 against Ohio State in 2013, when LaQuinton Ross hit a tiebreaking 3 with 2 seconds left to lift the Buckeyes to a 73-70 win.
“It’s been amazing,” Matta said. “I hope like crazy it comes down to something like that (today).”
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