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WVU basketball: Huggins to face his former team

WICHITA, Kan. -- Bob Huggins has been here before. He's coached college basketball in Kansas.

He's coached his school against a school he used to coach.

What happens at 9 o'clock tonight (ESPN2 telecast) won't be a wholly new experience for the West Virginia men's basketball coach, but it won't be exactly like what he's been through before, either.

The Mountaineers face Kansas State, and it was the Wildcats who hired Huggins in 2006 after he spent a year away from coaching following his exit after 16 seasons at Cincinnati.

Huggins spent one season at Kansas State before taking over at WVU, his alma mater, in 2007.

He lost his first two games with the Mountaineers against the Bearcats, including a 64-60 defeat in 2009 at the Shoemaker Center that Huggins and his teams used to routinely pack.

"We wanted it so bad," said WVU senior point guard Truck Bryant, who started as a freshman that season. "That was rough. We really wanted to go in there and win it for him. It's something on our mind now, but really, we just want to go in and get a win."

Players were devastated after that loss. Alex Ruoff, then a senior, was inconsolable afterward and hated that he had missed an open 3-pointer late.

Things were no different a year earlier when the Mountaineers played host to Cincinnati and were again guilty of the very behavior they hope to avoid tonight.

"We set the school record for

ineptness, so I hope that's not the case again," Huggins said of a 62-39 loss where WVU shot 20 percent from the floor and set a school record by missing 19 of 20 3-point shots

Winning, no matter the opponent, is WVU's sole focus.

The Mountaineers are 4-2 after Saturday's 75-62 loss at now-No. 17 Mississippi State.

Coached by Frank Martin, a Huggins assistant at Kansas State, the Wildcats (5-0) are one of 14 unbeaten teams left in the country.

WVU and K-State are future Big 12 Conference foes, too.

"I wouldn't say this is like that Cincinnati game," Bryant said. "The history is a lot different - a lot different. It doesn't even compare. The only thing that's on my mind right now is winning this game.

"It still means a lot to him. That's a coach who used to coach under him, but we want to win this one because we need a win."

Huggins brushed aside comparisons, too, and highlighted the differences. The teams will play tonight at a neutral site, the 15,000 seat Intrust Bank Arena.

"Going back to Cincinnati was going back to the Shoemaker Center, going back to the city of Cincinnati," he said. "This is in Wichita, 130 miles from Manhattan (where K-State is located). We're not playing in Bralmage (Coliseum). I don't think this is anything like that."

There's no greater difference than the conditions under which Huggins left his two former schools. Cincinnati's president, Nancy Zimpher, didn't want Huggins, whereas Huggins didn't want to leave Kansas State.

"His wife (June) and him loved it here," Martin said. "I have said this before, but I was with him when someone called and offered him $2 million and he hung up on them. About two hours later, someone offered him $2.5 million and he hung up on them.  He was not leaving here for another job. He could have tripled his salary."

Huggins took over a Wildcats program that didn't have a whole lot of tradition or success and hadn't made the NCAA Tournament the previous 10 years. He was determined to change all of that and was hoping people would believe him.

Huggins remembered speaking at a fundraiser before his first season when an old Wildcats fan spoke up and questioned the plan Huggins was presenting

"Coach, I'd like to believe you, but I heard the same things from the coach before you and the coach before him," the man said. "I'm just not sure I believe it. I'm not sure I'm going to buy season tickets."

Huggins accepted that. He understood the skepticism, but he tried to separate himself from his predecessors.

"That's all right," Huggins said, "but your problem is going to come a year or two from now because the tickets you thought you could buy you're not going to be able to buy because somebody else already has them."

Huggins led the team to a 23-12 record, a 10-6 mark in the Big 12 and a semifinal appearance in the conference tournament. The Wildcats were left out of the NCAA Tournament despite more wins than any season since 1988, then went 1-1 in the NIT.

Coach John Beilein left WVU for Michigan in the offseason and WVU considered no one else but Huggins for the job. Huggins agonized over the decision, but realized the only job he'd leave Kansas State for was at WVU.

"He said, 'I have to do it,'" Martin said, remembering the moment Huggins revealed he was leaving. "He looked awful. He was beat up, which I know he was because he was forced into making a tough decision, a decision he had no interest in making because he was so happy here. He had to make that decision."

Some were irritated at first, but time and NCAA Tournament appearances have helped the same people realize Huggins left the program primed for success.

"We would not have been in the NCAA Tournament in my first year if it was not for him," said Martin, who is 100-43 at the school. "He could have done what every other coach in this business would have done.

"He could have taken the West Virginia job and taken us assistants and all the kids with him. That's what everyone else in the business would have done, but that is not what he is about.  

"He knows this school gave him a chance. That is something that he will never forget.  That is why he was willing to leave his staff behind because he made sure that the kids stayed behind. He wanted to make sure that we finished the job that we came here to do."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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