LOS ANGELES — Ever since Thad Matta and Sean Miller shared a tiny office at Miami of Ohio nearly two decades ago, the coaches’ friendship has survived job changes, practical jokes and a few hundred bucks in unpaid lunch tabs.
They’ve worked together and recruited against each other. They’ve shared scouting tips and sought job advice. They even briefly lived under the same roof with their entire families.
“I wouldn’t be here today without him,” Miller said Wednesday. “I learned a lot from him, enjoyed being around him when we worked together, and we remain very good friends.”
They remained close after their teams faced off in a memorable Ohio State victory over Xavier in the NCAA tournament six years ago, and they’re still close heading into their next meeting Thursday at Staples Center, when the second-seeded Buckeyes (28-7) meet Miller’s Arizona Wildcats (27-7) in the West Region semifinals.
“I don’t like the fact that we’re playing, but I’m happy as can be for him,” Matta said.
The winner gets much more than bragging rights between best friends: While nobody in either uniform would suggest this game is the true regional final, both teams realize the winner of this meeting between powerhouse basketball schools will be a strong favorite to make the Final Four. With underdogs La Salle and Wichita State playing the late game, Ohio State and Arizona are the only seeds in the top eight left in what looks like the least attractive regional.
“We’re not caught up in the sexiness and all that,” Arizona guard Mark Lyons said. “I feel like my teammates are handsome, but that’s (beside) the point.”
Both teams have a mix of veteran talent and emerging youngsters, leading to a few marquee positional matchups that are tough for both coaches to predict.
Ohio State hero Aaron Craft faces a stiff challenge against Lyons, the ball-hawking guard described by Miller as the hoops equivalent of a running quarterback. Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes’ leading scorer, will be checked on most possessions by Solomon Hill, the Wildcats’ rangy senior from Los Angeles.
Ohio State is the only team to make the regional semifinals in each of the last four seasons, and the Buckeyes are on a 10-game winning streak since mid-February. Arizona overcame its late-season struggles to put together yet another solid NCAA run, trouncing Belmont and unceremoniously ending Harvard’s hopes last week while making better than 55 percent of their shots in both games.
“It always gets tougher the further you go in the tournament,” said Craft, whose late 3-pointer propelled Ohio State past Iowa State last Sunday. “You play against great players, and as a defender, you always want to take away their go-to. They have more than one.”
Arizona should have a home-court advantage as the regional’s closest school to Los Angeles by far, with thousands of Wildcats fans expected to make the trip to cheer on a team with seven players from Southern California. The Wildcats had a huge advantage two years ago in the West Region final in Anaheim, although UConn still advanced on the way to the national title.
Arizona and Ohio State have never met in the NCAA tournament, but Matta and Miller faced off in the second round in 2007, three years after Matta took over the Buckeyes and left Miller in charge at Xavier. Mike Conley Jr. and Greg Oden led Ohio State past the Musketeers after Ron Lewis’ clutch 3-pointer forced overtime, and the Buckeyes eventually reached the national championship game.
Neither coach enjoyed facing a good friend that year, and their collision this week isn’t as fun as the chance to reconnect in person for the first time in months.
The coaches know plenty about each other’s strategies, and they also know their quirks. Miller realizes Matta doesn’t enjoy being too far from his own bed, remembering long recruiting trips together when “it could be 10 o’clock at night, and he would give you that look like, ‘Why don’t we just get home?’”
“I guess if there’s one small advantage we have, we have him in a place that he’s not real familiar with, a long way from home,” Miller added.
They helped engineer an NCAA tournament upset of Arizona while they were on staff together at Miami of Ohio — although Miller left Matta stuck with about $350 in lunches when he left for Pitt in 1995. The coaches worked together splendidly again at Xavier — and Miller even lived with Matta briefly after getting the job in Cincinnati in 2001, bringing along his pregnant wife and their kids.
“If it was a couple of weeks, it probably felt like a couple months to Thad and his wife,” Miller said.
Matta needed only one word to describe Miller as a roommate: “Sloppy.”
“The thing about Sean that I’ve learned over time is whenever we’d go somewhere, he’d forget his wallet,” Matta continued, recalling a trip to South Florida when Miller showed up at the airport with no cash. “And he was making a lot more money than I was. But that’s him.”
Miller and Matta had an extra-long conversation between their teams’ practices Wednesday, discussing the possibility of Miller’s son, Austin, heading to Ohio State to work for Matta as a team manager in a couple of years. They’re full of mutual respect, with Miller suggesting Matta is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career — even if that journey goes through Miller’s Wildcats this week.
“When you do this long enough, your paths are going to cross,” Matta said. “I’m sure he feels the same way: I want to win like crazy, but if things don’t go well, I couldn’t be happier for him.”