West Virginia coach Bob Huggins can be a rather intimidating presence. He rarely smiles on the sidelines or in front of reporters. His bench wardrobe, another coach once joked, is something right out of Walmart, a short-sleeved zipped-up blue windbreaker.
Villanova coach Jay Wright is different, with the custom-made suits he wears and his friendly, cooperative nature with reporters. But he and Huggins not only have been on opposite benches but also have worked together off the court, and Wright described their relationship as “very good.”
“We worked hard together at the end of the old Big East to try to keep it together,” Wright said Monday after the No. 1 seed Wildcats (32-4) completed their first practice preparing for their Sweet 16 matchup Friday night against the No. 5 seed Mountaineers (26-10) in Boston.
“He really worked hard and I worked alongside of him. We consider ourselves friends. I have a lot of great Huggs’ stories but, knowing Huggs, I just can’t tell any of them in public because it’s just Huggs.”
West Virginia joined the Big East in 1995-96 and played 23 games against Villanova. Huggins, who became the Mountaineers’ coach in 2007, and Wright faced each other only six times before WVU left the conference after the 2011-12 season to join the Big 12. The Big East lost eight schools that had FBS programs after the following season, and the league reorganized in 2013-14 with 10 schools.
The Mountaineers have won seven of their last nine games, including Sunday night’s 94-71 victory over cross-state rival Marshall. Asked after the game if he remembered anything about Villanova from his Big East years, Huggins quipped, “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast.
“No, it’s a different team,” he said. “Jay does a great job. I’ve got great respect for Jay and what he does. We had great battles in the Big East.
“We spend so much time looking at film of who we’re going to play that we really don’t watch a lot of basketball from other leagues and things. I’ve seen bits and pieces and highlights on ESPN. But I don’t know very much about them.”
Wright said the Mountaineers are similar to the teams he remembers from Big East games, except for the tenacious, aggressive fullcourt press they now utilize.
“The similarities to Huggs’ teams in the Big East are really physical, half-court defense; physical, aggressive rebounding,” he said. “That they still do. We just didn’t see the press. Everything’s the same except they’ve added the press which makes them even better.”
West Virginia forced 18 turnovers against Marshall, eight of them against top scorer Jon Elmore.
In NCAA statistics, the team is second in turnover margin (plus-5.2 per game), 10th in forced turnovers (16.53) and 14th in steals (8.1). WVU also pulls down an average of just over 14 offensive rebounds per game, fourth nationally.
Wright said the difficulty with a press like West Virginia’s is that the Wildcats haven’t seen anything like it all season, and it’s difficult to simulate in practice.
“I think we’re just going to have to get in there, like being at a boxing match, take a couple of punches, hope it doesn’t affect you too much, and then get used to it and grind through it,” he said.