Sean Miller watches his Musketeers practice yesterday in Boston. At left is another Western Pennsylvania product, Brian Walsh of Moon and a freshman at Xavier.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Boston -- Sean Miller's closest friends at Pitt all had different memories. Jason Matthews recalled his leadership qualities that allowed him to walk in as a freshman and start at point guard on a supremely talented team that included Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. Darelle Porter remembered his intricate knowledge of the game and his ability to communicate that knowledge to his teammates. And Bobby Martin remembered Miller's cerebral approach to the game that allowed him to compete at the highest level of college basketball without the speed and athleticism of his peers.
All of those qualities are still evident for the player turned coach who will compete against his alma mater for the first time as a head coach, in an NCAA tournament game no less.
Miller will lead No. 4 seed Xavier (27-7) against No. 1 seed Pitt (30-4) tonight in an NCAA third-round game at TD Banknorth Garden.
Everywhere Miller looks this evening he will have a reminder of his past at Pitt. Matthews, Porter and Martin will be in the crowd celebrating Miller and Pitt's berth in the Sweet 16. At the end of the Pitt bench will be trainer Tony Salesi, who was in Miller's wedding and remains a good friend. Also on the bench will be Brian Regan, Jamie Dixon's director of operations who has known Miller since childhood and was a graduate assistant coach at Pitt from 1988-90 when Miller was the team's star point guard.
Pitt: Playing in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the past eight seasons. ... Has not advanced to an Elite Eight since 1974. ... Will tie the school record for victories in one season with a win. ... Led by senior F Sam Young (18.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg), sophomore C DeJuan Blair (15.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg) and senior G Levance Fields (10.6 ppg, 7.6 apg)
Xavier: Playing in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season and for the third time in the past six seasons. ... Advanced to the Elite Eight in 2004 and '08. ... One of only nine schools to make the Elite Eight twice in the past five seasons. ... Won 25 games or more for third consecutive season.
Hidden stat: Xavier coach Sean Miller has won more NCAA tournaments games (6) than any other coach in Xavier history. He is tied for 10th in NCAA history for most victories in his first five seasons.
"Pitt is a special place for me," Miller said yesterday. "You look back on your experience, and the one I had was amazing. Some of my strongest relationships, including my wife [Amy], stem from my time at Pitt. I certainly loved my days as a player there. But for this game, the spotlight really should be on the current team and in the matchup with their team. It's exciting to be in the Sweet 16 regardless of who you play."
Miller is one of the rising coaching prospects in Division I. He is in his fifth season at Xavier and has the Musketeers in the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season. Last season, they made it to the Elite Eight before losing to UCLA.
Matthews said there were early indications that Miller was going to be a special coach. He said he knew Miller would someday follow in the footsteps of his father -- John Miller, a former WPIAL and PIAA championship coach at Blackhawk High School -- by the time their freshman season was 10 games old.
"You could tell when he was a freshman," said Matthews, a shooting guard next to Miller on those teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. "He had a complete understanding of the game, where everyone was supposed to be on offense and defense. He took control of that team even though we were a freshman backcourt. He was a leader on that team, believe it or not. The upperclassmen welcomed Sean as a leader. He had a great relationship with the upperclassmen. When you're able to do that as a freshman it says a lot about you."
"If you watched him play you could sense that he had a great grasp of everything that was going on around him," Regan said. "Whether there was chaos or calm, he could make the situation go in his favor."
It didn't take long for Miller's instincts to translate behind the bench. When they were still playing for Pitt, Miller and Porter were hired by local businessman and AAU coach J.O. Stright to coach the Pittsburgh J.O.T.S. 15-and-under team.
Miller and Porter were responsible for scouting the talent, coaching the team and overseeing road trips to out-of-town tournaments.
"That was a good experience for us," said Porter, a former head coach at Duquesne University. "We were able to identify talent early. I knew he'd be a good coach because he knew the game. He was very good at explaining what he wanted to get done. And his dad was a coach so he was prepared to be a coach even if he didn't want to be a coach."
As a child, Miller used to spend every waking hour in the high school gym with his father at Blackhawk. That's where he learned the game through osmosis and developed an understanding of the type of work ethic necessary to excel in the coaching business.
"I had a feeling when he was coaching the J.O.T.S. that he would stay with the game as he moved on," John Miller said yesterday as he watched Xavier go through a public workout at TD Banknorth Garden. "He loved it. After he was done playing at Pitt he had an opportunity where he could go to Chicago and try out and maybe play there for a year or two, or he could go to Wisconsin and work for Stu Jackson. Stu needed an answer right away, so Sean grabbed it."
After Wisconsin, Miller worked under Herb Sendek at Miami of Ohio, at Pitt (for one season under Ralph Willard in 1995-96) and at North Carolina State (under Sendek again) before becoming associate head coach at Xavier under Thad Matta.
Since taking over for Matta before the 2004-05 season, Miller's record as a head coach is 120-46. And now he's in position to lead his team to a second consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight. All that stands in the way is Pitt, a school he loves but wants to beat in the worst way tonight.
"It is emotional," Martin said. "It's our alma mater. We had a lot of wins there. I love Pitt, but my heart is with Sean. That's my man. I'm going to have my Xavier shirt on."
Porter, who also has close ties to Pitt center DeJuan Blair, said he will be happy one way or the other tonight.
"I've spent a lot of years with Sean," Porter said. "We were roommates and close friends. You always want your friends to do well. I'm in a no-lose situation. It's either going to be Sean or DeJuan playing in the Elite Eight for the right to go to the Final Four."
Pitt history:Sean Miller
Statistics for his career that went from 1987-92:
Games Points Ppg. Assists Apg. Rebounds Rpg. Steals