UA’s Sean Miller takes on ‘best friend’ in NCAA Sweet 16

Tomorrow will mark the first time that Sean Miller‘s Arizona Wildcats have met up with Ohio State.  But the fourth-year head basketball coach knows exactly what to expect when the two teams collide tomorrow in the NCAA West Regional semifinal – better known as the Sweet 16.

He may not know the team that well, but he certainly knows its coach very well.

Miller’s relationship with Thad Matta, the Buckeye’s head coach, goes back to the mid-90’s when both were on the same coaching staff at Miami of Ohio and then later when Miller served as an assistant to Matta at Xavier before taking over the Musketeers program as his last stop before relocating to Tucson.

“Thad Matta is probably my best friend in coaching,” Miller said in the pre-game press conference earlier in the week.  “He’s a guy that means a lot to me.  I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him.”

Now, however, Miller has to find a way to beat his old friend.  And that’s a tall order.

Arizona (27-7, 12-6) has played the Big Ten school once before, but that was long before Miller arrived on the scene.  OSU embarrassed the Cats in that one, winning in a 90-47 romp back in 1971.  That game was also played in Los Angeles during the Bruin Classic.  Tomorrow’s will be at the Staples Center.

The Wildcats enter the game ranked No. 21 in the AP poll, while the Buckeyes are the No. 7 team in the country.

Ohio State (28-7, 13-5) is a No. 2 seed this year and is playing in its fourth straight Sweet 16, trying to get to its second straight Final Four.  But Matta’s old coaching buddy is standing in the way.

Actually, it will likely be Arizona’s defense that will stand in the way.  It was the ‘D’ that held Harvard to 28 percent shooting in the last game – the lowest opponent field-goal percentage in the 76 games Arizona has played over the years in the NCAA Tourney.  When you combine the Harvard game with the opening win over Belomont, the Cats have held those two opponents to an average of 57.5 points on 33 percent shooting.

Arizona, a No. 6 seed, has held opponents to less than 40 percent shooting on 18 different occasions this year.

And Nick Johnson, the sophomore from Gilbert, has developed into one of the best defenders in the country.  The 6’3″ guard held Harvard’s top scorer to eight points on 1-of-11 shooting; he ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in steals and has recorded 19 blocked shots this season.

That suffocating defense is a primary reason the Cats have been able to dominate in their first two tournament games as they built up early leads and cruised to relatively easy wins.  They never trailed in either game.

But they have also been scoring above their season average of 73.5 points.  Arizona averaged 77.5 points in the first two games, and is 19-2 when scoring 70 or more points.  And their size enables them to get a lot of production inside; stats show they had 35 layups, dunks, or inside baskets in the two games.  The seven-foot center, freshman Kaleb Tarczewski, has become a force to reckon with; he averaged nine points and eight rebounds in the two tourney games so far.

Much of that offensive production comes from senior point guard Mark Lyons, who was on fire against Belmont and Harvard, shooting 63 percent from the field and averaged 25 points a game.  Johnson adds another 12 points a game and averages 3.3 assists.

Tomorrow, however, they will try to match up with the winner of the Big Ten Conference, arguably the strongest conference in the country this year.  The Buckeyes, who shoot 45.6 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from behind the arc, will put the Cats’ defense to the test.

Since the game is close by, in neighboring California, there should be a good contingent of Arizona fans there to make a lot of noise.  But Miller isn’t sure that’s going to be that effective against a seasoned team like Ohio State.

“”We have a short trip and we are going to have more fans,” admits Miller,  “but, at the end of the day, because of their tournament experience and the fact that they win Big 10 championships the way they do, I don’t believe that the crowd will affect a team like Ohio State.

“I think that we will have to flat-out be the better team.”

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)