It wasn’t about the two coaches when LaQuinton Ross nailed a three with two-seconds left to send Matta and the Buckeyes to the Elite Eight in 2013 and send Miller and his Arizona Wildcats packing.
When the two coaches meet for the third time Saturday at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., both coaches looking to advance to the Sweet 16 this season, it once again won’t be about Matta and Miller.
“Thad and I are good friends,” Miller said. “But I think this game is so much about Arizona versus Ohio State, two very good teams playing for a Sweet 16 opportunity.”
It may not about Miller and Matta now, but for a few years at Miami University and again at Xavier, it was.
The pair first coached together under Herb Sendek at Miami during the 1994-95 season. It was Matta’s third coaching stop and his first run in with Miller, who was in his second year with the Redhawks when Matta joined the staff.
Their relationship started with a bit of a prank.
“I started at Miami of Ohio on a Thursday,” Matta recalled from the bowels of the Moda Center Friday. “That Friday, it was about 4:30, Sean said, ‘I have to run down and do this speaking gig for 10 minutes. Why don't you ride with me?’ I didn't know him real well. I said, ‘Where is it?’ He said, ‘I'm not exactly sure. But it's around here somewhere. I got a hotel room.’
“We got to Cincinnati, then he informed me we were going down to like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It was like a seven-hour drive. At that point he pulled the wool over my eyes.”
That was the start of what developed into a close friendship between the pair, a brotherhood of coaching that continued at Xavier when Matta took the head coaching job there in 2001. Miller joined his staff and the two coached alongside one another for three years there before Matta left for his current position and Miller was hired to replace him as head coach of the Musketeers.
The first time they found themselves coaching opposite one another rather than on the same bench came three years later when a Greg Oden-led Buckeyes squad narrowly escaped Xavier in the second round of the tournament in 2007.
“That was maybe one of the harder games I've had to coach in my career because I had recruited -- been a part of recruiting those guys to that university, a majority of them,” Matta said. “So that was challenging in some ways.”
The pair got a six-year hiatus from playing one another until they faced off again two eyars ago in the NCAA Tournament. Like the first contest, that game was close and Matta got the win, improving to 2-0 against his protégé.
Arizona presents a stiff test for the Buckeyes, giving Miller his best chance yet to upend Matta, but the Ohio State coach is nothing but happy for his friend.
“I’m very proud of that,” Matta said of playing Miller for the third time in the tournament. “Because I think Sean has built a great program and I think we’ve built a great program. To meet in the NCAA Tournament, that’s awesome.
“You have a few people in your lives who you really, really trust and admire and Sean is without a doubt one of those guys to me.”
Miller echoed those sentiments and while he surely wasn’t happy to lose those games, that isn’t necessarily what makes them difficult.
“It's hard to play someone that you care a lot about,” the Arizona front man said. “You know, this is the third time that we played. I think every time that it happens, it's less of a burden, it feels more natural. This feels more natural now than maybe the second time or certainly the first time. But inevitably if you're in this tournament, you're going to find yourself matched up against friends or former places that you've been.”
So, is it about Matta and Miller tomorrow when Arizona and Ohio State square off?
“Coach Matta is all about Arizona versus Ohio State,” senior Sam Thompson said. “He's not so much concerned with the Coach Matta versus Coach Miller matchup, so to speak. Everything has been about how Ohio State can put our best effort against Arizona.”
Win or lose, Matta can reflect on the matchup with Miller and his relationship with his former assistant after the game tomorrow. Still, the postgame handshake between the friends may be less than congenial.
“First thing I do when I'm shaking hand, I'm trying to get my $400 I loaned him back in 1999. He never repaid me for all the lunches I bought him,” Matta said beaming. “I know this. 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.”