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Friends face off in NCAA third round

Ohio+State+coach+Thad+Matta%26%23160%3Bargues+with+a+referee+during+Ohio+States%26%23160%3B75-72+win+against+Virginia+Commonwealth%26%23160%3Bduring+the+first+round+of+the+NCAA+Tournament%26%23160%3Bon+Thursday+in+the+Moda+Center+in+Portland%2C+Ore.
Rebecca Noble

Ohio State coach Thad Matta argues with a referee during Ohio State’s 75-72 win against Virginia Commonwealth during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in the Moda Center in Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Two years ago Ohio State knocked Arizona men’s basketball out of the NCAA tournament, but revenge may not be Arizona coach Sean Miller’s primary emotion when the Wildcats face the Buckeyes on Saturday.

The third round of the NCAA tournament will feature not just a matchup of No. 2 seed Arizona, but of Miller and Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who are friends.

Matta joked that Miller owes him about $400 for lunches he paid for.

“I’m very proud to have worked with Sean, and to watch what he’s done from Xavier to Arizona, I couldn’t be happier,” Matta said. “Obviously I told those guys in there it means a lot to me to have played these guys two times in the last three years in the NCAA tournament, once in the Sweet 16, now in the Round of 32. I think it says a lot about the jobs that both of us have done.”

Matta has led Ohio State since 2005; before that he was head coach at Xavier from 2002 to 2004 and Butler in 2001. He was an assistant for Butler from 1998 to 2000 and an assistant at Miami of Ohio in 1997 and in 1995.

Miller has been Arizona’s head coach since 2009, the same position he held at Xavier from 2004 to 2009. Before that, he was associate head coach at Xavier (2001 to 2004) and N.C. State (1996 to 2001) and an assistant coach at Pitt (1995-96) and Miami (1993 to 1995).

Both Miller and Matta said they don’t like coaching against friends but have made piece with the fact that that will happen in the NCAA tournament.

“It just seems to be part of the storyline that makes the tournament,” Miller said. “Thad and I are good friends. But I think this game is so much about Arizona versus Ohio State, two very good teams playing for a Sweet 16 opportunity. I think that’s to me our focus right now.”

Miller and Matta became friends when they were on then Miami of Ohio coach Herb Sendek’s staff, along with Charlie Coles, who died in 2013.

“Thad and I really got to know each other in the early ’90s,” Miller said. “I don’t know if it was just the timing or personalities of all three of us, but I think we all had a profound effect on each other, something that goes beyond coaching, a friendship of great meaning. Obviously Charlie has passed. But Thad and I obviously are very close.”

Matta said he and Miller’s friendship started when they drove together for seven hours on a road trip to a town in Tennessee.

“We spent so much time together that you build a special bond and have a unique relationship,” Matta said.

Miller said their friendship comes from both coming from basketball families and then the connection when he ran Miami’s basketball camp as an assistant.

Both Miller (Pittsburgh, Penn.) and Matta (Hoopeston, Ill.) are from the Midwest and coach’s sons.

Miller said the two coaches text each other a handful of times during the season and then more often after.

“I’m glad I didn’t talk to him a whole lot this year because I didn’t spill all the things you don’t want that other coach to know, and vice versa probably on his end,” Miller said.

Not only do Miller and Matta come from the same coaching tree, they have played a couple times in the NCAA tournament, with Matta beating Xavier and Arizona.

“He’s a very intense person, you know what I mean,” Arizona guard Gabe York said about Miller. “So I don’t think he wants to make it any bigger or smaller than what it already is but knows that he’s playing against one of his best friends and that he lost two years ago. So we just want to focus on what we do and if we do that, we should be fine.”

Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said Miller talks about his friendship with Matta a lot and they run a lot of the same plays that they did at Xavier.

“I think a lot of the principles that coach Miller teaches us he learned from him but over the years coach Miller has grown as a coach,” Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “I think whoever he coaches against, he’s going to be at his best.”

In 2007, Matta and Ohio State beat Miller and Xavier in the round of 32. Then in 2013, the Buckeyes beat the Wildcats 73-70 in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.

The winner of Saturday’s game could face Xavier in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles. The winner of the sixth seeded Musketeers’ game against No. 14 Georgia State will face the Arizona/OSU winner.

Ohio State forward Sam Thompson said Matta downplays situations like the coaching match-up.

“He’s not so much concerned with the Coach Matta versus Coach Miller matchup, so to speak,” Thompson said. “Everything has been about how Ohio State can put our best effort against Arizona.”

While Miller and Matta are friends, the Arizona coach didn’t seem too excited playing his buddy in Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s too cold in Columbus,” Miller said. “We like to stay in warm weather. We have palm trees. Why would I want to do that? We just watch them on TV and cheer for them.”

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Follow James Kelley on  Twitter.

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