Friends face off in the NCAA tournament
by Doug Haller, Special to USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — Their friendship formed in the small town of Oxford, Ohio, where Sean Miller and Thad Matta served as assistant coaches on Herb Sendek’s Miami University staff.
Just one day after Matta had been hired, Miller asked if he wanted to join him at a clinic he was scheduled to attend the next morning.
“I speak tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. for only 10 minutes,” Miller told Matta in 1994. “We’ll get in the car and come right back.”
“Where is it?” Matta said.
“I’m not sure, but it’s around here somewhere,” Miller answered.
The two left Oxford at 6. They arrived in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., several hours later in the middle of the night.
“He got me,” said Matta, relaying the story Wednesday. “At that point, I kind of knew what I was in for.”
Today in an NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinal, Miller and Matta meet again. Miller, 44, is in his fourth year as head coach at Arizona, trying to get the Wildcats back to the Final Four, a place they haven’t visited since 2001. Matta, 45, is in his ninth season at Ohio State, trying to secure about the only thing his resume lacks: a national championship.
This is part of March Madnesses’ beauty, providing matchups fans don’t often see during the regular season. For the most part, coaches don’t like playing their friends, but in this event, they have no choice. Last year Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Florida’s Billy Donovan produced the friendship storyline. This year it’s Matta and Miller.
“What he’s meant to me is simply, I wouldn’t be here today without him,” Miller said of Matta. “I learned a lot from him, enjoyed being around him when we worked together and we remain very good friends.”
They worked together one season on Sendek’s staff, then went separate ways. Miller worked as an assistant at Pittsburgh and North Carolina State. Matta went to Western Carolina, back to Miami, then to Butler, where he eventually served as head coach. In 2001, Matta accepted the head-coaching position at Xavier. Among his first moves was bringing in Miller as an assistant — and also a … [For more on Friends Matta and Miller face off in the NCAA tournament, click here.]