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Xavier's path blocked by old foe Huggins

The West Virginia coach is a long-time nemesis of the Musketeers, having coached at crosstown rival Cincinnati.

March 27, 2008|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX -- What is this, the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout?

It's Bob Huggins against Xavier all over again.

The Cincinnati-Xavier basketball rivalry could make USC-UCLA hoops look friendly, and now Huggins, the old nemesis, is sending his West Virginia team against Xavier in an NCAA West Regional semifinal.

"I'm sure a lot of Xavier fans are glad he's not coaching UC anymore because when he was there, they were a real hard team to beat," said Xavier forward C.J. Anderson, a Cincinnati native who remembers when Huggins prowled the sideline.

"That's like our version of North Carolina-Duke, or Ohio State-Michigan in football," Anderson said. "I've got people that like UC. I don't call them during that week. They don't call me. It's personal whenever we meet them, and Coach Huggins, he had a huge part in that."

This is not the same Xavier that Huggins used to do battle with when Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser were there.

Sean Miller is the coach now, and Huggins has known the 39-year-old former Pittsburgh point guard since the days Miller was a dribbling prodigy who appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

"I like Sean. I have known Sean pretty much his whole life," Huggins said. "I know his father John very, very well. John and my dad have been friends and coaching colleagues for 30, 35 years."

If it seems as though Cincinnati days were another life for Huggins, well, they sort of were.

He had a near-fatal heart attack in 2002, then was forced to resign at Cincinnati in 2005 after a controversy-filled tenure that included a drunk-driving arrest, NCAA rules violations and poor graduation rates in addition to three Elite Eights and the 1992 Final Four. He spent one year at Kansas State before leaving for West Virginia, his alma mater.

A changed man? Maybe not.

"It's like New Year's Eve," Huggins said. "You say, 'I'm not going to do this,' and about the third of January you are back to doing what you did before.

"I haven't really changed all that much. I mean, you know, I would like to sit here and tell you that I probably eat better, but look at me. That's obviously not the case."

He still rants and raves, and his heart attack, West Virginia center Jamie Smalligan said, is something he jokes about.

"Sometimes in one of his more fiery moments in practice, say, if somebody misses a block-out . . . he'll just say, 'I was dead on the floor for two minutes and I could block that guy out,' " Smalligan said.

This West Virginia team isn't vintage Huggins, not with a deadeye shooter like Alex Ruoff. But he has helped make a star out of junior Joe Alexander, a 6-foot-8 forward who scored 13 points his freshman season, averaged 10 last season, but in six March games has scored 32, 29, 22, 34, 14 and 22 points.

"I thought he was going to be all fiery all the time, but in reality he is just fiery some of the time and the rest of the time he is calm and just teaches us like a normal teacher does," Alexander said.

That's hardly the usual image of Huggins.

"I understand to make a good story there's got to be white hats and black hats. Otherwise we never would have had a cowboy movie. That's the way it is," Huggins said. "And I'm good with it. I'm 54 years old, been shocked back to life three times. I'm fine with it."

It's Huggins and Xavier, and Huggins doesn't care who wears the black hat.

"Whether it is Xavier or UCLA or Western Kentucky, I mean, it is a game that's a very, very important game for both teams because the one that loses is done, and the one that wins gets to advance," Huggins said.

One team, in other words, survives.




West capsule

No. 3 Xavier (29-6) vs. No. 7 West Virginia (26-10) -- It's the Musketeers against the Mountaineers, and these teams have more in common than rhyming nicknames. Their statistical profiles are very similar, and both are balanced, with four starters scoring in double figures. Xavier had the easier road to the Sweet 16, defeating an exhausted Georgia team in the first round and Purdue in the second. West Virginia did it by beating Arizona and then upsetting No. 2-seeded Duke. A focal point for Xavier is defending forward Joe Alexander. "He can go for 30 on any given night, and we have to do a really good job on him," Xavier guard Stanley Burrell said.

-- Robyn Norwood

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