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March 26, 2013

Miller talks Matta, Buckeyes

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As they often do, Thad Matta and Sean Miller spent last Monday on the phone, catching up.

"If we can just get to L.A., it'll be like a home game for us,'" Miller told Matta, referencing his Arizona team's draw in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.

The Ohio State head coach paused, thinking about where the Buckeyes had just landed a day earlier during the tournament's selection show.

"I think we're in L.A., too" Matta replied.

Matta was right. Miller was too. And as a result, it will be a rematch between the mentor and his pupil when the second-seeded Buckeyes (28-7, 13-5 Big Ten) square off with No. 6 seed Arizona (27-7, 12-6 Pac-12) inside of Los Angeles' Staples Center in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

The relationship between Matta and Miller dates back to the mid-90s, where both served as assistants at Miami (OH) under Charlie Coles. When Matta took over as Xavier's head coach in 2001, it was Miller who he brought on as his top assistant.

"Thad Matta is probably my best friend in coaching, he's a guy that means a lot to me, I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him," Miller said on Monday. "I learned a lot from him and had a great time together, and because of that we know Ohio State very well."

This isn't the first time that Matta and Miller's respective paths have brought them back to the same court.

In 2007, Matta entered the NCAA Tournament with arguably his most talented team at Ohio State- one led by star players Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. But before the Buckeyes could advance to the national championship game where they would lose to Florida, they first had to get past the round of 32, where they took on Xavier, who was coached by Matta's successor in Miller.

The Musketeers put Ohio State on the ropes, leading the No. 1-seeded Buckeyes until the final seconds of regulation, when Ron Lewis hit a 3-point shot to send the game into overtime. It was there that Ohio State prevailed, avoiding an upset at the hands of Miller's squad.

"The last time we squared off was in one of the greatest games in the NCAA tournament maybe over the last 10 years. I really thought it was going to be Greg Oden's last game, and it looked that way, but they made an incredible shot, and we moved on and they moved on," Miller said. "They went on to almost win the National Championship, but that would've been in the round of 32."

Now at Arizona, where he's been the Wildcats' head coach since 2009, Miller will get his shot at redemption against Matta on Thursday, although even he knows that will be easier said than done. Heading to Hollywood on a 10-game winning streak, the Buckeyes are one of the nation's hottest team, and are the top-seeded squad remaining in the West Region.

"They are a two seed so I look at them as one of the top eight teams in the country. If you had to value that they are probably more towards the top four than the top eight. They have earned it," Miller said. "They are the best team we have played."

That's not to say that Arizona doesn't have reason to be confident in its chances of pulling an upset. The Wildcats breezed through the tournament's first round, winning two games by an average margin of 20 points. Matta has stated that he believes that Ohio State is facing the West Coast's best team on its own side of the country, although that might not be the advantage that Miller initially thought it would be while speaking to his former boss last week.

"We have a short trip and we are going to have more fans, but at the the end of the day, because of their incredible tournament experience and the fact that they win Big Ten Championships the way they do, I don't believe that the crowd will affect a team like Ohio State," Miller said. "I think that we will have to flat out be the better team."



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