Hurley, Miller remain friends amid heat of intrastate rivalry
TEMPE, Ariz. – First thing’s first, let’s get one thing absolutely clear: Arizona coach Sean Miller does not hate Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, and Hurley does not hate Miller.
This might surprise people who have seen Hurley’s postgame locker room speech after ASU’s win over Colorado last January. That night, Hurley told his players, in a moment caught on camera, “If anyone wants to win here (in this state), they better go to f ****** Tucson!”
In the following weeks, Hurley explained that comment wasn’t targeted at Arizona. Miller brushed the incident aside, telling reporters he understood Hurley was trying to motivate his team. When the teams played in Tucson a week later, the Wildcats led start to finish in a
91-75 win, at one point leading 42-18. Miller, in his ninth year at Arizona, and Hurley have known each other for decades: They were teammates on the U.S. basketball team that won the 1991 World University Games. Playing together while representing your country “forever bonds you,” Miller says. But their awareness of each other started even before that.
“An early childhood memory (of mine) was seeing Sean on the Johnny Carson show doing all his tricks and the ballhandling,” Hurley recalled, laughing. “He was a little older than me, but I remember being like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta start practicing!’ ”
The coaches meet Thursday for the second time this season. Hurley, in his third year with ASU, has never defeated Arizona. The Wildcats won the first desert battle 84-78 in Tucson. But their teams are in remarkably different shape compared to the first meeting on Dec. 30,
No. 19 Arizona, a preseason favorite to reach its first Final Four since 2001 (and what would be its first under Miller), is in contention for its 16th regular-season title but has had a rough couple of weeks. The Wildcats (20-6, 10-3 Pac-12) lost on a last-second shot at Washington on Feb. 3 and played from behind almost the entire game before falling to unranked UCLA 82-74 last week in Tucson.
And yet Arizona still has a two-game lead in the conference and on Sunday earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA selection committee’s Top 16 bracket reveal. No team in the West — including Gonzaga, which is ranked 11 spots higher in USA TODAY Coaches Poll and thumped No. 15 Saint Mary’s on the road over the weekend — was awarded a better seed.
Though Arizona struggles with consistency, this is the Wildcats team, led by freshman phenom DeAndre Ayton, that everyone expected in September. And they have time to figure out the kinks before March Madness hits.
It’s been rougher for Arizona State. Once the hottest team in college basketball, No. 22 ASU has stumbled significantly in conference play. The Sun Devils
(19-6, 7-6) came into the Dec. 30 meeting riding a 12-game winning streak and boasting the biggest non-conference wins in the country with victories over Xavier and Kansas.
Then conference play hit, the Sun Devils went cold from the outside and opposing teams realized slowing ASU was key to beating them. When Colorado beat then-No. 4 Arizona State in Boulder
90-81 in on Jan. 4, fans rushed the floor in celebration, a bizarre situation for a team recently considered a relatively easy win.
“It was a fairy tale the first 12 games, but we went through a rough stretch,” Hurley said. “To see us get courtstormed … that was eye-opening for our guys … We had a rough stretch, lost some close games and learned more about our- selves. Now we’re on pretty solid footing.”
So where does this leave the coaches? Miller and Hurley are from remarkably similar backgrounds. Both are sons of legendary basketball coaches. John Miller coached high school basketball for
35 years in Pennsylvania, winning four state championships and totaling 657 wins before retiring in 2004 (Sean Miller said his dad now coaches AAU girls basketball, and loves it).
Bob Hurley Sr. is in the Basketball Hall of Fame after winning 1,151 games and 27 New Jersey state championships in 44 seasons. Both have credited their fathers for inspiring them to get into coaching, and both were known as fiery point guards — Miller at Pittsburgh, Hurley at Duke — in their playing days.
“We grew up in almost identical households,” Miller said. “But he was in the city, and I was in the country.”
And while both acknowledge that yes, there’s a rivalry between their schools, they consider each other friends, not enemies.
“I would categorize it like this: I know I’m the coach at Arizona and understand the importance of it to fan bases, to universities,” Miller said. “But above and beyond that, I don’t know how healthy it is for anyone to make it personal.”
There’s likely no catching up with or topping 35 years of tradition, an advantage Arizona will always have. And while comparisons are inevitable, no one sees the rivalry as a reason to pit coach against coach. Miller is quick to point out that Arizona State’s non-conference success and RPI (25) have helped lift the
Pac-12 as a whole, which should result in four teams making the NCAA tournament.
Beating the Sun Devils used to be a no-win situation for Arizona: Win and pundits would brush the victory aside, saying that of course Arizona should take that game. Lose and the bottom could fall out. Now, ASU beating Arizona actually wouldn’t be that much of an upset.
“There’s no hate or disrespect,” Sun Devils guard Tra Holder said.
There’s just a belief in both locker rooms that no team is going to come into the state and walk away with an easy win.
Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, with Kodi Justice, is friends with Sean Miller. DAVID KADLUBOWSKI/THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC