Thad Matta received a phone call from Sean Miller the day after the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled.
“If we can just get to LA, it’ll be like a home game for us,” the Arizona coach said, whose Wildcats were placed as the No. 6 seed in the West Region.
“I think we’re in LA, too,” Matta replied, whose Buckeyes received the No. 2 seed in same region.
Matta, the head coach at Xavier from 2001-04, and Miller, an assistant for the Musketeers’ during that same period, were so engulfed in their respective programs it took the former co-workers some time to realize it was possible that OSU and Arizona could meet in the Sweet 16 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“We had no idea. That puts in perspective how coaches think. Everybody else is like, ‘Who’s going to get to the Final Four?’ Coaches are just trying to win one,” Matta said.
Saturday night, Miller sent Matta a text message.
“We’re waiting for you in LA,” it read.
Arizona had already secured a spot in the Sweet 16 following a blowout win against No. 14 seed Harvard. OSU, yet to play its third-round game, hadn’t. Sunday, thanks in part to a game-winning 3-pointer from junior guard Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes advanced to their fourth straight Sweet 16 following a 78-75 victory against No. 10 seed Iowa State in Dayton.
The matchup is set. Thursday at 7:47 p.m. ET, OSU and Arizona will square off in Los Angeles with a berth to the Elite Eight on the line.
“He’s done a tremendous job out there. He’s a great coach, a great friend. I’m excited to play him,” Matta said.
The 45-year-old coach, though, might not be too thrilled with the challenge Miller’s group will present for his team.
“I know this, the best team on (the) West Coast is who we play next. I’ve seen Arizona play. They are loaded. They are extremely talented,” Matta said. “I’m not taking anything away from those other teams ranked higher or whatever, but the best team on the West Coast is Arizona.”
The Wildcats started the season 14-0, notching wins against Florida and San Diego State along the way. Arizona went on to go 12-6 in the Pac-12, finishing a game behind the conference’s regular season champion, UCLA.
In two NCAA Tournament games, against Belmont and Harvard, the Wildcats’ average margin of victory was 20 points.
Not only is Arizona talented – Miller’s last two recruiting classes have been ranked third and seventh by ESPN – its players are experienced. The Wildcats’ two leading scorers are seniors: Mark Lyons, a point guard that transferred from Xavier prior to this season, and Solomon Hill, a 6-foot-7 stretch forward.
OSU players are aware of how tough it can be to play a veteran-laden squad. Iowa State had three redshirt seniors in its starting lineup Sunday. Craft said the Buckeyes will have to improve in numerous areas if OSU is going to reach its second-straight Elite Eight.
“I think we’re going to go back and watch (Sunday’s game’s) tape and know we didn’t play perfect. We had a lot of things that we could have done better,” Craft said.
A positive takeaway from OSU’s stomach-wrenching third round win is that the Buckeyes battled through a tough stretch – Iowa State went on a 13-0 run late in the second half – and came out victorious.
“Teams are going to make runs in this tournament. You can’t be rocked by that. You have to hold your composure and find a way to dig deep,” said junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. Matta said he’s pleased that his team went through what they did against the Cyclones.
“I hope our guys have confidence. I don’t like the fact that we had a 13-point lead and squandered it, but I’m proud of the way we finished it,” Matta said.
If Thursday’s game is anything like the last time Matta faced his former assistant, OSU will be in another nail-biter.
In 2007, a Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.-led Buckeye squad met Miller, who took over the Xavier program following Matta’s departure to OSU in 2004, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Miller left Xavier for Arizona in 2009. OSU won that game, 78-71 in overtime, after a Ron Lewis 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation tied the contest.
That buzzer-beater kept alive an NCAA Tournament run that saw the Buckeyes make the national championship game before losing to Florida.
Could Craft’s last-second shot against Iowa State give this year’s OSU team the same momentum the 2007 unit got from Lewis’ make?
“You hope,” Matta said with a grin.
The winner of the OSU-Arizona contest will play the winner of the game between No. 9 seed Wichita State and No. 13 seed La Salle, Saturday, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.