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.