MANHATTAN (AP) — Frank Martin enjoys just about every chance he gets to catch up with Bob Huggins.
The irascible coach of West Virginia gave Martin his big break in college basketball on his staff at Cincinnati. When Huggins took over at Kansas State, Martin quickly joined him. And when Huggins left to take over the Mountaineers, Martin got his chance as a college head coach.
Yes, Martin enjoys spending time with his good buddy. He just doesn’t expect to have much of a chance this weekend.
“I might do his scout, and he might do mine Tuesday night, and then he’ll coach his team with my thoughts, and I’ll coach my team with his thoughts,” Martin said with a laugh.
“At least our wives will be able to spend some time together,” he added. “They like each other a lot more than they like us.”
The eighth-seeded Wildcats open the NCAA tournament against No. 9 seed Southern Miss on Thursday in Pittsburgh. A few hours later, the 10th-seeded Mountaineers play No. 7 seed Gonzaga.
Their seeding means both teams must win three times for Kansas State and West Virginia to meet in the finals of the East Region. That would mean the Wildcats likely knocking off No. 1 seed Syracuse along the way, and the Mountaineers getting past second-seeded Ohio State.
Makes sense neither coach will have much time to catch up. They’ll have more chances soon enough, though.
When the Mountaineers were ousted by Connecticut last week in the Big East tournament, it effectively ended their membership in the league. They’ll be joining the Big 12 later this year, and will play Kansas State twice during the regular season.
Martin thinks that conference affiliation will be evident this weekend.
“You know, I would hope our fans back up a conference member in West Virginia, and I would hope West Virginia would back up a conference member in K-State,” he said, “and out of the respect that we have for one another, I would hope our fans would act the same way.”
Huggins would certainly appreciate it, with his Mountaineers facing perennial mid-major power Gonzaga. Despite playing about 80 miles from their campus in Morgantown, they figure to have one of the more difficult 7-10 match-ups in the tournament.
“We need all the help we can get,” Huggins said of the fans. “Hopefully they’re on the phone now trying to get tickets because we’re only going to get our allotment, and hopefully they find ways to get there, because I know they did when we played in Washington D.C..”
Martin still credits the lone year that Huggins spent in Manhattan, Kan., for much of the success that has followed. The Wildcats are competing in their third straight NCAA tournament, and their fourth in the five years since Huggins bolted for his alma mater.
One of those resulted in a trip to the regional finals.
“Coach Huggins’ credibility is what allowed us to take a giant step right off the bat and create that foundation,” Martin said. “Then all we’ve done is we’ve continued to build.”
Kansas State and West Virginia actually played earlier this season. The game was played in Wichita, a manageable drive from the Wildcats’ campus, in part because Huggins believed it would have been too uncomfortable playing at Bramlage Coliseum.
It wound up being an epic showdown between two teams destined for bigger things, and the Mountaineers came out on top in a double-overtime thriller.
Now, Huggins and Martin have their sights set squarely on what happens in Pittsburgh.
The Wildcats have plenty to worry about in the ninth-seeded Golden Eagles, who were awarded their first NCAA tournament bid since 1991. Southern Miss (25-8) won 11 straight games during one stretch, and coach Larry Eustachy has plenty of experience preparing teams for March.
“Rodney (McGruder) and I actually know a guy that goes there right now,” said Kansas State forward Jamar Samuels, referring to Southern Miss’ Darnell Dodson. “It’s going to be pretty cool to play against him. It’ll be a very exciting game.”
McGruder leads the Wildcats in scoring at better than 15 points per game, and has emerged as one of the better go-to guards in the Big 12. Southern Miss counters with balance — Dodson, Neil Watson and LaShay Page all average double-figure scoring. “We know what can happen if you slip up and lose,” McGruder said. “It would be the end of our season. We’re just trying to put all our effort into practice that is coming up so that we know that we are giving it our all.”