Hur­ley, Miller re­main friends amid heat of in­trastate ri­valry

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS | NBA - Lind­say Sch­nell

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

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