Brad Underwood’s wife cried when Bob Huggins got on a plane to leave for his new coaching job at West Virginia.
It was 2007 and Underwood was the assistant at Kansas State then — a job he took after Huggins picked him up from his coaching job at Daytona Beach Community College — and even after only one year working together, Huggins had made his mark. Now the head coach at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood again finds himself in his mentor’s captivating orbit.
Well, it’s actually more like a collision course.
The No. 14 Lumberjacks will take on third-seeded West Virginia on Friday at the Barclays Center in the NCAA East Regional. It will be the first matchup between Huggins and his old assistant (and the first time these two teams have met, period). There’s plenty of love there, and plenty of similarities — both teams play up-tempo and run a pressure defense. The coaches know each other since the early ‘90s, when Huggins, then coach for Cincinnati, was trying to recruit from Underwood’s Dodge City Community College team.
“He is the single best communicator with people and with players that I’ve ever seen,” Underwood said. He “just had an unbelievable way of effecting young men in a positive way . . . His players love him to death, and it was a great learning experience for me.”
Underwood has ushered Stephen F. Austin (27-5) to the NCAA tournament all three years he’s been at the helm, while Huggins is an institution, with 791 Division I victories.
The familiarity is “probably more of an advantage for Brad than it is for me,” Huggins said. “We were obviously running my stuff and Brad runs, does a great job, with the pinch post stuff, which I never really ran.”
But it’s clear Underwood and the Lumberjacks have plenty of work to do — shutting down Devin Williams, who’s averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, and managing the intense full-court press Huggins likes to run. The Mountaineers (26-8) have forced 18.15 turnovers per game. SFA averaged 18.63 over the course of a weaker schedule.
“It’s a great challenge,” Underwood said. “I have tremendous respect for Bob . . . He’s got such a magnetic personality.”
And, until tipoff, there’s still a little room for fun among old friends. Underwood confessed to just having come from photo-bombing one of Huggins’ interviews.
“Jumped in it,” he said. “Just because I know he’d do it to me.”