Former Pitt star Sean Miller creates dilemma for ex-teammates as coach of Xavier

Former Pitt star Sean Miller creates dilemma for ex-teammates as coach of Xavier

GREENSBORO, N.C. – They sat behind the Xavier bench and pulled for the coach they refer to as a “brother” even three decades after their official association ended. Sean Miller’s heavily favored team made it an anxious two hours for Jason Matthews and Darrelle Porter, the Musketeers falling behind by 13 points in their NCAA Tournament opener against Kennesaw State before rallying to take the lead and blocking an attempt at a game-winning shot with seconds to play.

That, as it turns out, was the easy part of the weekend.

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Sunday afternoon, Xavier will play Pitt in the second round of March Madness. Back in the day, Matthews, Porter and Miller were Panthers teammates, from 1987-91. We know, obviously, who Miller wants to win. How do the other two handle it?

“It’s a happy conflict, is the way I like to describe it,” Matthews told the Sporting News. “I kind of feel like Jason Kelce’s mom. She just has to sit there and be happy for whoever wins and console who doesn’t.”

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All three rank with the great players in Pitt history. Matthews is No. 6 among Panthers in career scoring. Porter is No. 4 in assists, with Miller ranking No. 2 in that category. They were part of a Big East regular-season championship as freshmen and three NCAA Tournament appearances, missing a fourth in large part because Miller was absent in their junior year with a foot injury.

That sort of association does not end with graduation, which is something those who were not college athletes might have reason to envy. They have been in touch since, gathering as often as life will allow, and Miller’s occupation does provide the occasions to be in touch.

“Sean and I, we played AAU ball together from 10, 11 years old, all the way up,” Porter told TSN. “The long-term relationship is what it’s all about.

“Man, this is an unbelievable circumstance. This is the second time this happened since Sean has been coaching. I’m in no-lose situation. You have your brother playing against your alma mater? No way you could lose.”

This isn’t the first time for anyone involved to be dealing with this. Matthews and Porter had practice for how to handle it in 2009, when Xavier reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed and played No. 1 seed Pitt. That became the final game of Miller’s first period as Musketeers head coach, before he left to take over the Arizona program.

The game was in Boston, and Matthews and Porter were present for that one, also, along with Pitt classmate Bobby Martin. Porter remembers being seated close to Bill Murray at the game, which he appreciated because everyone who saw him on the game telecast was more fixated on his proximity to a movie star than on which team he might be favoring as he watched.

“I might go through the whole game with no facial emotions. I might wear some sunglasses so people can’t even look at my eyes,” Porter said. “And then I’m going to be the happiest person in the gym no matter what happens, and then the next game I’ll be rooting for Calipari to win.”

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The college basketball world can be small sometimes, but Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum it was tiny enough that all of it could have been stuffed inside a phone booth, if such a thing existed anymore. It began with Miller coaching Xavier in his team’s Midwest Region opener. No. 11 seed Pitt followed and blew out favored Iowa State. After a short break, Kentucky took the court under John Calipari – who was Pitt’s assistant coach and lead recruiter in the 1980s and attracted Miller, Porter, Matthews, Martin and Brian Shorter to join the Panthers program before leaving to become the head coach at Massachusetts a year later.

Such a thing cannot escape a coach in Miller’s position, as much as he would prefer just to be coaching against some random No. 11 seed and focusing only on advancement to the NCAA Sweet 16. This circumstance has become a storyline; on the March Madness hierarchy, an alluring story ranks behind only the buzzer-beater and the upset.

Miller remembers the 2009 game in which his Musketeers were the No. 4 seed and the Panthers, led by future NBA players DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, were a No. 1 seed pursuing their first Final Four since 1941, when the tournament only had eight teams. Beyond the result and the clutch shot by Panthers guard Levance Field that won it, though, he does not recall watching their heartbreaking regional final loss to Villanova. 

“Once you get kicked out of the tournament, you just go dark for a couple of days,” he told TSN. “Clearly, I would have been pulling for Pitt and Jamie Dixon, as much for my fondness for him as the place that I went to school.”

Miller apparently does not spent a lot of time reminding his players what a significant player he was at the college level: Big East rookie of the year in 1988, second-team All-Big East as a senior in 1992. Two of his players at XU’s press conference were unaware of his background as a ballhandling wizard who demonstrated his skill and was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show at age 14; one, center Jack Nunge, had come across a video on YouTube.

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He does know from his playing career, though, what awaits on the wrong side of the result in Sunday’s game. “It’s a brand new season, and it ends quickly,” Miller said. “And I learned that in college, unfortunately, in a heartbreaking way.”

Miller cared not to speak about it, and that will surprise no one from Pittsburgh. The Panthers were a No. 2 seed in 1988 and matched against Vanderbilt in the second round. They controlled much of the game and had a 3-point lead in the closing seconds. Vandy’s star center, Will Perdue, even fouled out of the game. But a player named Barry Goheen, whose name remains something of a profanity among Panthers fans of a certain age, was allowed to break open in the left corner for a 3-pointer that tied the game and forced overtime. The Panthers lost there.

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That was 35 years ago. Porter still lives in Pittsburgh and runs the Ozanam club basketball program that has been in operation for 55 years and helped launch such future college legends as Kenny Durrett of LaSalle, Dwight Clay of Notre Dame and Sam Clancy of Pitt. The Western Pennsylvania area is enjoying a basketball-talent revival, with such NCAA Tournament players as Indiana point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, Kentucky freshman guard Adou Thiero, Purdue’s Ethan Morton and Pitt guard Nelly Cummings.

Matthews is a real estate investor in Tampa but remains connected to the game through his son, Brandon, a manager for the USF Bulls program, as well as his relationship with Miller and to Pitt.

Matthews told TSN his mother is a huge college basketball fan who was texting him throughout Friday. “She was going wild through each game,” he said. “She’s already worried: So how are you going to handle it? I was like: ‘How are you going to handle it?’ She said, ‘You know I’m with Sean. I’m always with Sean.’ I said, ‘Well, you didn’t play for Pitt, so you can do that.”

They will sit at Sunday’s game with Miller’s wife Amy, also a Pitt product. Porter and Matthews have known Amy as long as they’ve know Sean. There is no doubt where her loyalties rest.

“She thinks different than me!” Porter said. “It’s husband first, school second – and second is closer to 100 than it is to 1.”