Such is the grit and guts of the one-and-done NCAA Tournament. O'Neill and Huggins met eight times when they were at Marquette and Cincinnati, respectively. O'Neill coached in Milwaukee from 1989-94, going to two NCAA Tournaments as Huggins, hired at UC the same year, engineered the reemergence of Bearcat basketball until 2005. The Morgantown native bested O'Neill, winning seven times and reaching 14 consecutive NCAA fields while advancing to his lone Final Four in 1992.
The two are considered mirror images, defense-first coaches who value physical toughness and rebounding. O'Neill was hired by Arizona head coach Lute Olsen for his ability to develop man-to-man sets, something he was most noted for while an assistant with the NBA's New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Huggins, an instant pick for West Virginia after the departure of former coach John Beilein, built what professional scouts termed ‘Cincinnati bodies' after he was among the first coaches to insist upon a stringent weight program that allowed players to immediately compete at the highest levels. Now the two square off again in the NCAA first round game here at 9:40 p.m. tonight.
"I would cheer for Bob from afar," O'Neill said. "He is one of the guys from the business that I do stay in touch with. And he is a guy that I think the world of. We have been friends for a long time, on and off the court. But once we get out there we're both going to try and win, obviously. It's not like I am going to tell our guys ‘Go ahead and cut the screen so (Alex) Ruoff can do the three. Looks like Bob needs to catch up down there.' It's not going to be like that. We're going to try to beat each other's brains out. And then afterwards hang out or say hello or whatever."
Huggins said the two had talked Wednesday, but didn't care to go into details. He did admit that he thinks the two styles are "very similar. Kevin is going to play man-to-man and he may try and trick us and throw a zone up there. Basically, he is a man-to-man guy and his teams were always very physical. They have always been very tough, mentally and physically."
Arizona's players note their defense has significantly improved from their time under Olsen, who valued the transition game the ‘Cats still employ while shying from a major emphasis on stopping opposing teams. The strategy has largely worked, as U of A makes its 24th consecutive NCAA appearance, the longest current streak in the nation and just three bids shy of tying the all-time mark held by North Carolina. O'Neill has said his team used the term ‘airspace' this week in reference to Arizona's plan to attack any outside shots with close guarding.
But even O'Neill's insistence on first stopping foes hasn't totally taken to this year's team. Arizona (19-14) has allowed 70 or more points in four of its last six losses. West Virginia (24-10) is similar, having lost five of eight games when allowing 70-plus points. The game could be considered a race to that mark, if not for Arizona's transition game, which allows it to gain easy baskets.
"They are the best in transition," Huggins said. "They want to play a little faster. They want to spread you out because of the strength on the perimeter."
O'Neill's goal will be to use athleticism and guard play to push the pace while containing West Virginia by guarding the outside to force the Mountaineers into contested two-point shots. Huggins will counter with a more opportunistic set offense that finds the hot player – of late Joe Alexander – while trying to hold Arizona in the 50s or 60s with tight man play. And both coaches know it.
"The basic principles of the offense are about the same," O'Neill said. "They are more set oriented, and they all understand sharing the ball. They understand who is playing great right now. The players, if somebody is hot, they find him. They don't mind giving the ball up. They share it, they make the extra pass. They are stronger as a group than they are individually.
"I had a chance to watch Bob's games, and they are probably not as bad as he says or thinks they are. If they are that bad or don't want to show up, that would be fine. I'm sure they will show up and play a heck of a basketball game."
Huggins showcased his competitiveness while playing it a bit coyer.
"I won't tell you everything I know about Kevin," he said with a grin. "That wouldn't be fair." But oh, how sporting.