Their journeys to college basketball's center stage began as high school basketball players in North Carolina. Howard at Kernersville Glenn and West at Garner both needed to pump up their academics before filing off to a four-year school. Both picked Hargrave Military Academy. Neither was viewed as a lock to play at the highest level of college basketball, let alone have professional aspirations.
Kevin Keatts, now an assistant coach at Marshall, was Hargrave's top assistant at the time under now Virginia assistant Scott Shepherd. In 1999, Keatts couldn't fathom either reaching the levels they have now.
When Howard and West arrived at Hargrave in the fall of 1998, they thought of entertaining the prospect of heading off to college together. One problem: few colleges thought that was a good idea. "Some schools passed on both of them," Keatts said. "Several schools in fact passed on them. There's a lot of people kicking themselves over that."
West, Xavier's man in the middle and perhaps the most gifted big man passer in the nation, wasn't even a starter on Hargrave's 1999 team. Harris Walker would run the point and he signed with Tennessee. Ronald Blackshear was the shooting guard and he's at Marshall now. Howard, Wake Forest's all-american, was the small forward and Dimari Thompkins (Virginia Tech) and Sylbrin Robinson (signed with Florida) were the starters inside.
"When David West first came up we thought he was more of a project," Keatts said. "He played on the perimeter and was gangly inside and not very strong. Everyday he got a little better. Once Robinson got dismissed [and he became a starter] his confidence soared. The day he became a starter he went from a boy to a man."
Keatts said that when West left Hargrave the forward told him that he wanted to lead the nation in scoring as a freshman. "I didn't think he could do that but he did become the league MVP for three years."
In 1999, Hargrave was scoring 115 points a game. Everybody was putting up numbers so it was tough to tell just how much star power the kids had. From my accounts, I remember Walker was fast, Blackshear had range, Howard was versatile and West hustled. Like Keatts, never could I predict the success this pair would have.
Howard plays so hard, but he didn't play hard all the time at Hargrave and remember, Blackshear was regarded as the best prospect on that team. "One thing about Josh Howard during that period is that he wasn't a great practice player," Keatts said. "But, once the ball was tipped he would play for 40 minutes. As a coach, that burns you up. But he was a big competitor."
Both players came dangerously close to picking other schools. Howard wanted to go to North Carolina State but when the Pack signed Damien Wilkins, he looked elsewhere and fell in love with hometown Wake Forest.
Keatts said that Marshall nearly landed West early in the recruiting process and actually had a commitment from him. "Because he was young his parents never signed the letter [of intent] and it was never sent back." Skip Prosser then came in and locked him up for Xavier.
Just to show you exactly how interlocked their careers are, Prosser has coached both of them in college. He had West for two seasons at Xavier and Howard for two at Wake Forest.
Howard and West's careers could intersect one more time on the college level. Should their teams advance to the Final Four, the pair would meet in New Orleans for the right to play for the national championship.
Remember, these guys have been defying the odds for the past four seasons. It certainly wouldn't be out of character for them to overachieve one last time and give us an interesting national semifinal. Would it?