The most intriguing part of the matchup between No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 6 seed Arizona has less to do with the Buckeyes and the Wildcats that will be on the court than the ones that will be stalking the sidelines.
Thad Matta and Sean Miller are good friends with a coaching connection that dates back two decades. Back in 1994, Matta was hired as an assistant coach at Miami (OH), where Miller was already a member of the staff. While their career paths separated as both bounced between assistant coaching gigs over the next few years, when Matta was hired as the head coach at Xavier, he scooped up Sean Miller from NC State to be his lead assistant.
He even let Miller live in his house, with Miller’s pregnant wife and two sons, while they went house hunting.
That decision led directly to Miller’s first head coaching gig, as he was hired to replace Matta when Matta took over at Ohio State in 2004.
It gets better: this isn’t the first time the two have met in the NCAA tournament. The last time? 2007, when Ron Lewis hit this memorable shot and with Gus Johnson calling the action:
Perhaps the strongest indicator of how close these two are is that, despite regaling the media with stories about the pranks that they’ve pulled on each other, Matta still doesn’t bring up this win with Miller:
As a result of how that game unfolded, it’s one of the few subjects neither Miller nor Matta bring up with one-another. In addition to the heartbreak of wasting a late nine-point lead for Xavier, the outcome was controversial because referees opted not to call an apparent intentional foul on Greg Oden for shoving a Musketeers player out of bounds with 10 seconds left in regulation.
“That was as big a heartbreaker as I can remember,” said Xavier director of basketball administration Mario Mercurio, who worked under both Matta and Miller as well. “I’ve never watched a tape of that game. I’ve never seen Ron Lewis’ shot except for when it was live. I would say that not many people at Xavier acknowledge that game’s existence. I don’t know if Sean and Thad talk about that game much, but I know this. I never talk to Sean about it.”
Hopefully, we’ll get a game that’s just as exciting tonight.
And I doubt that another heart-breaking loss would hurt their friendship.
“When you lose the game —and hopefully that won’t be me — it’s a little bit easier, I believe, to deal with because no matter who Ohio State plays, I always cheer for them because of my relationship with Thad,” Miller said.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.