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Kentucky Wildcats-West Virginia Mountaineers matchup features John Calipari vs. Bob Huggins

TAMPA — Perhaps the most obvious common trait that binds West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and Kentucky's John Calipari is the somewhat shocking fact neither has earned a college basketball national championship despite nearly 1,200 victories between them.

But, really, that's merely where the shared qualities begin.

This pair of pals will meet today in an NCAA Tournament East Region game at the St. Pete Times Forum, and the more time you spend around them the more you begin to see a series of similarities.

For starters, both possess the same deadpan sense of humor.

"I'm struggling to find something that I really like about him," Huggins said of Calipari, with a straight face of course.

"I can't stand Bob Huggins," Calipari offers in response.

And both have a mixed public perception, each claiming an equal number of harsh critics and fans. Not that either cares one iota what you think of him.

"You guys (the media) either put a black hat on some of us and you put a white hat on some of us and I'm not going to be able to fight it," Calipari said. "I just do my job; take care of kids. Bob does the same."

The connection between Calipari, 52, and Huggins, 57, has been nearly inescapable, going well beyond basketball. This was even true the day Huggins was being rushed to a Pittsburgh area hospital after a 2002 heart attack. That's when he learned the paramedic treating him was, of all people, Calipari's cousin.

The rest of the story remains murky because both bull-headed men have slightly, um, different versions.

"He was out cold and he tells you he remembers everything?" Calipari jokes. "We're going to get my cousin because Bob does embellish. (My cousin) says, 'I'm Coach Calipari's cousin and I'm here. You're going to be fine.' And that's when Bob said, 'Oh my gosh! I'm not making it!' "

Huggins admits to being semi-conscious, but recalls the story this way:

"I mean, I know I'm not doing very well," he said.

"When I woke up, (Calipari's cousin) was a lot more serious. He kind of put his hand on my shoulder. He said, 'Coach, I'm Cal's cousin. … We're not going to let you die until he beats you at least once.' "

At the time, Huggins had a 5-0 record against Calipari. The West Virginia coach still leads their rivalry 8-1, including a win in the Elite Eight last year over Calipari's John Wall-led team. But Calipari doesn't hold the success against Huggins. After the heart attack, Calipari hopped on a flight to Pittsburgh to be at his friend's bedside because basketball pales in comparison to matters of life and death.

Still, basketball remains a high priority for men who have made it their life's work, even if the game hasn't always been kind to them. They've won conference championships, been to Final Fours and earned coach of the year honors. However, a national title remains elusive for both.

Neither obsesses over it, although they're occasionally reminded.

When Huggins was sitting alongside former Louisville coach Denny Crum at a speaking engagement a few years ago, Crum — a two-time national champion — was asked by an audience member what it takes to win a title.

"Denny said, 'You have to be lucky and you can't be unlucky,' " Huggins recalled.

Then, Crum pointed to the ringless Huggins and said, "That's the most unlucky guy I've ever seen."

Bad bounces, injuries and curious bracket placement have all played roles in Huggins and Calipari falling short, but they say they can live with themselves.

"Things have happened," Huggins said, pointing to Kenyon Martin's broken leg in 2000 that sidelined the nation's best player and might have cost Huggins a shot at a title with Cincinnati.

"I can't control them. All (I) can do is do the best I can."

Calipari, who also has coached UMass, the New Jersey Nets and Memphis, has things in perspective, too.

"I mean, come on," he said. "There are guys who have not won it or been to Final Fours that I think are Hall of Fame coaches. (Purdue's) Gene Keady comes to mind. (Temple's) John Chaney is in the Hall of Fame."

It's likely both these men will wind up there, too. And when they do, it'll be just the latest thing that bonds this inseparable duo.

Kentucky Wildcats-West Virginia Mountaineers matchup features John Calipari vs. Bob Huggins 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 8:43pm]
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