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 hot shot 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.
“Sean more than handled himself,” Ryan recalled Friday. “He was great.”
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 Regional final, with a spot in the Final Four at stake.
Neither Ryan, who has 703 career victories, nor Miller, with 249 wins to his credit, has ever gotten that far.
“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 win 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’ve reached just 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 1976-85.
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 who rebound with abandon.
“We are tough, nasty and relentless,” said Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The Badgers could say the same about themselves, but when asked how Arizona might describe them, Frank Kaminsky deadpanned, “White guys.”
Arizona’s Tarczewski and Kaminsky, who had 19 points and six blocked shots in the Badgers’ semifinal win 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 3-point shooter.
The Badgers are the better team from long-range, averaging 38 percent to Arizona’s 36 percent.
“We have to close out the high ends and keep them off the line,” said Hollis-Jefferson, who scored 15 points against SDSU. “They’re going to play tough in guarding us, too.”
Both teams average about 73 points while holding opponents to 42 percent shooting or less.
Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker has seen enough of Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson and his high-flying teammates to know what’s in store.
“It still makes you say, ‘Wow,’ every time you see them,” he said. “Dunks aside, they are a very solid team that can go out there and defend. They get after people and make you work.”
That style is reflective of Miller’s work ethic, learned first as the son of a coach and honed starting with his single winter in Madison, the first stop on a 12-year journey to running his own program.
Driving to work one early morning, Miller spotted dozens of fires burning on the city’s lakes, a sight so startling that he pulled over.
“It was ice fishing,” he said. “The cold of that winter, wow, I can still remember it.”
Ryan has never left that bitter cold, spending his entire head coaching career in the state of Wisconsin. He’s been to Final Fours before, usually with his father in tow. But his father died in August and now the Badgers have a chance to make sure Ryan doesn’t go alone this year.
“To have a team there,” he said, “that would be pretty special.”