Familiarity The Watchword for WVU-UW Match-up

A lot has changed for the players and coaches that will occupy both benches for tonight's East regional semifinal between West Virginia and Washington. But both sides will see plenty of familiar faces among the opposition when the game tips off at the Carrier Dome.

It starts at the top. Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins and UW head man Lorenzo Romar have a lengthy history, dating back to Huggins' days on the sidelines at Cincinnati.

Romar played for Athletes in Action, the traveling basketball squad based in Cincinnati and associated with the evangelical Christian group of the same name. He even attended a few classes at UC with some of Huggins' players and played the occasional game with many of them.

"So we got to spend some time together," Huggins said. "He actually went to the same church [I did]. Then, [as Romar was] leaving and going to UCLA, Jim Harrick is a good friend of mine. We kind of maintained a relationship."

That culminated in Romar getting the head coaching gig at St. Louis, where he would go head-to-head with Huggins' Bearcats squads in Conference USA play.

It was Romar's upstart Billikens that upset then-No. 1 Cincinnati in the C-USA championship game in 2000 -- a game remembered mostly for the season-ending injury sustained by Kenyon Martin that served to derail UC's national championship hopes.

While both coaches have since moved throughout the ranks, Romar said little has changed about the way Huggins-coached teams play.

"I don't care where Coach Huggins is -- after a while, his teams start to look the same," said Romar, now in the midst of his eighth season patrolling the bench at UW.

"You can see this [West Virginia] team is starting to look like the teams he had at Cincinnati. They're long, athletic guys that just play extremely hard, are mentally tough and just come out and get after you."

While the two coaches will be working as hard as possible on Thursday night to defeat each other and earn a trip to the Elite Eight, there seems to be a mutual respect between them as men.

"He's a good guy," said Huggins of Romar. "He's really good for our game."

But the coaches aren't the only ones involved in the contest that are familiar with one another. Several players on both sides have played with and against each other at various levels of basketball.

Most recently, WVU swingman Da'Sean Butler teamed up with the Huskies' senior forward Quincy Pondexter to help represent the United States in the World University Games in Serbia last summer.

Pondexter, who leads Washington in points (19.7) and rebounds (7.5) per game, knew Butler was capable of the sorts of late-game heroics that have made him a national sensation in recent weeks.

"When I see him hit those shots, they look kind of unorthodox. But he always knocks them down, for some reason," said Pondexter. "He did that a lot during practice and during games in Serbia last year."

"He's a tremendous player, and I'm really proud of him. I can tell my teammates to expect the unexpected from him. He can hit some really clutch shots, some off-balance shots, and he will shoot it from anywhere."

That respect is mutual.

"He's very talented," said Butler of the player known as "Q-Pon" in the Huskies' media guide. "He's athletic and he can shoot the basketball. Pretty much the only thing that can stop him is if he has a bad night."

But the ties run even deeper than that. Mountaineer forward Devin Ebanks and injured point guard Truck Bryant played against Washington guard Isaiah Thomas in AAU competition.

Ebanks was part of Team Takeover, while Bryant played for the New York Gauchos. Both faced Thomas and his Friends of Hoop squad on the AAU circuit.

"It will be fun to play against him again," said Ebanks. "I kind of have a feel for what he likes to do, especially watching film the last couple of days. I think if we focus on that, we should be fine."

"I know [Thomas] from the Reebok U camp," said Bryant, who hobbled to the interview dais on crutches and in a protective boot to prevent further injury to the broken fifth metatarsal that will sideline him for the remainder of the NCAA Tournament. "We played against him. We had a pretty good relationship, and we talk here and there."

For his part, Thomas said he had been looking forward to the opportunity to take on Bryant again. He expressed disappointment in the fact that he wouldn't get that chance after the news broke Tuesday night that WVU's starting point guard would not play.

"He's just a strong guard from New York City who handles the ball and plays hard," said Thomas. "I'm sad that what happened to him happened. I know he wants to be out there playing with his team."

"I prayed for him last night. I hope he's in high spirits."

The Mountaineers and Huskies players and coaches did their best to dispel the old cliche that familiarity breeds contempt, expressing plenty of respect and admiration for those on the other side.

But when the ball is in the air at 7:27 p.m. tonight and both squads have the chance to advance to the regional finals, those old friends will become enemies for at least the subsequent 40 minutes of play.

"We're going to adjust to whatever they're doing, just like they're probably going to adjust to whatever we're doing," said Thomas. "We're going to come out and play hard, try to play Husky basketball, and hopefully get a win.

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