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Published: Friday, 3/29/2013

No. 2 Ohio State versus No. 6 Arizona

Ohio State's Matta, Arizona's Miller have entwined relationship on, off court

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Sean Miller, left, and Ohio State coach Thad Matta meet before a 2007 NCAA tournament game when Miller coached at Xavier. Miller was an assistant for Matta when he coached the Musketeers. The Buckeyes got past Xavier and went onto the NCAA final. Sean Miller, left, and Ohio State coach Thad Matta meet before a 2007 NCAA tournament game when Miller coached at Xavier. Miller was an assistant for Matta when he coached the Musketeers. The Buckeyes got past Xavier and went onto the NCAA final.
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LOS ANGELES — Try this for a Hollywood script.

Two buddies a couple years out of college bond as basketball assistants sharing a cramped office at Miami (Ohio), become a modern-day Odd Couple as roommates, experience heartache and elation at the others’ expense in their first meeting as head coaches, and, finally, collide for a Round 2 with both near the top of their profession.

Just down the road from the studio lights, that story will come full circle today when second-seeded Ohio State and No. 6-seed Arizona meet in a regional semifinal at the Staples Center.

For OSU coach Thad Matta and Arizona’s Sean Miller, the biggest barrier standing between their teams and the sport’s crowning stage is one of their closest friends.

They are basketball BFFs, sharing a quirky sense of humor, an unremitting drive, and a past that includes wild goose chases and $350 in unpaid lunch tabs — even a stretch as housemates when Miller and his wife and two kids moved in with the boss after accepting a job under Matta at Xavier.

"If it was a couple of weeks, it probably felt like a couple of months to Thad and his wife," Miller said with a smile.

Matta would not go so far, characterizing Miller’s living habits only as "sloppy."

Now, the pair also share two of the nation’s top basketball programs.

Matta’s ninth OSU team is on a 10-game winning streak and the only team in the Sweet 16 for a fourth straight season while Miller is building Arizona — a national power under legendary coach Lute Olson — back into a consistent winner. Miller, 44, is 96-42 in four seasons in Tucson and enjoying one of the best runs of his career.

The Wildcats opened the season 14-0 with victories over Miami and Florida and rose to fourth nationally, went 12-6 in the Pac-12, and burst into the Sweet 16 with routs of Belmont and Harvard.

Though perhaps lip service, Matta, 45, calls Arizona the best team on the west coast while Miller labels OSU the best team the Wildcats have played this season.

In an upended region, the Buckeyes (28-7) and Wildcats (27-7) meet in what could be a play-in game for a trip to the Final Four. The two schools are the only top-eight seeds left in the West, with the winner to play 13th-seeded La Salle or No. 9-seed Wichita State on Saturday.

"[Miller] is a special friend, somebody that I’m very, very e xcited that he’s here," Matta said. "I just don’t like the fact that we’re playing."

If time has shown anything, though, their friendship can withstand a lot.

Matta and Miller met during the 1994-1995 season as Miami assistants under coach Herb Sendek and immediately hit it off, though not the way you might surmise.

The day after Matta accepted the job, Miller told him he was speaking a clinic and invited the new assistant along for the ride. Matta asked him where they were going.

"I’m not exactly sure," he recalled Miller saying, "but it’s around here somewhere."

"So we leave at 6 p.m. from Oxford and arrived in Pigeon Fork, Tenn., at like 3 a.m.," Matta said. "He got me. At that point, I knew what I was in for."

The pair bonded over late-night strategy sessions and remained close after both left for new jobs. When Matta was hired in 2001 as head coach at Xavier, one of his first calls was to Miller to join him, then an assistant at North Carolina State.

They remained side by side for the next four years until Matta left for OSU and Miller replaced him, which set up their first head-to-head brush and a finish as wrenching for one as it was thrilling for the other. In a 2007 NCAA second-round game, Xavier was on the brink of stunning the top-seeded Buckeyes when Ron Lewis hit a deep game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation. OSU won 78-71 in overtime.

"Worked out really well for one of us and not very well for me," Miller said. "We don’t really bring it up very much."

Two years later, Miller called his confidant as he weighed whether to take the Arizona job.

Matta took the call while at dinner with his wife, stepping outside the restaurant for an hour.

Upon returning to the table, Matta’s wife asked, "What is he going to do?"

Matta had no idea.

"I’ve never seen a guy jump from one side of the fence to the other as many times as he did," he said.

Yet Miller left, and four years later, here they are united again. On the biggest stage yet.

"If we were playing a regular-season game, our relationship might affect things a little more," Miller said. "But when you’re playing for a berth in the Elite Eight or an opportunity to become part of the Final Four, it’s so much about the team, the game.

"Having said that, when you lose the game, and hopefully it won’t be me, it’s a little bit easier to deal with. No matter who Ohio State plays, I always cheer for them. What Thad has meant to me, I wouldn’t be here today without him."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.



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