ANAHEIM, Calif. – Sean Miller has been on Bo Ryan’s radar since the mid-1970s. That’s when the future Arizona coach came to Madison, Wis., for the first time at Ryan’s behest.
Miller was a 9-year-old point guard, and Ryan was a Wisconsin assistant looking for some juice to enliven a night designed to drum up interest in Badgers basketball. He called up Miller’s father, a coach who agreed to send his son from Beaver Falls, Pa., to help out.
The young Miller donned a Superman cape made by one of the coaches’ wives and showed off his ball-handling and shooting skills.
“He was great,” Ryan recalled Friday.
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Ryan, a long-ago point guard himself, sees a lot of similarities in how he and Miller view basketball these days. Their teams — No. 2 seed Wisconsin and No. 1 seed Arizona — square off Saturday in the West Region final, with a spot in the Final Four at stake.
Neither Ryan, who has 703 career victories, nor Miller, with 249 victories to his credit, has ever advanced to that level.
“It’s hard to get to a Final Four,” said Miller, who started his coaching career as a Badgers assistant in 1992. “You can be really good and not make it, both as a coach, a team and a player.”
The Wildcats (33-4) have not advanced out of the regional in Anaheim in three previous tries, dating to 1998. With eight weeks at No. 1 and 21 straight victories during the season, they want to deliver for Miller, who has restored the program’s luster in his five years.
“What we have done during the season has validated how good we are,” said 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, who was in foul trouble in their semifinal comeback victory over San Diego State.
The Badgers (29-7) haven’t been to a Final Four since 2000, shortly before Ryan took over in Madison. They have reached one regional final during 13 straight trips to the NCAA tournament, making it every year since Ryan assumed control of a program where he was an assistant from 1976 to 1985.
He turned 69 earlier this week, and the team is feeling a sense of urgency to deliver for a coach, who in the words of guard Josh Gasser, is “getting up there.”
“He deserves it,” Gasser said. “We all want it and we all want it for him.”
The only 1-2 matchup in the Elite Eight features two teams with similar defensive styles that rebound with abandon.
“We are tough, nasty and relentless,” said Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The Badgers could say the same about themselves.
Arizona’s Tarczewski and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, who had 19 points and six blocked shots in the Badgers’ semifinal victory over Baylor, give each team a 7-foot center to make the inside game interesting.
“We’re looking to draw fouls and throw them off balance a little bit with early foul trouble,” said Ben Brust, Wisconsin’s leading career three-point shooter.
The Badgers are the slightly better team from long range, averaging 38 percent compared with Arizona’s 36 percent.
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