CLEVELAND - Kentucky coach John Calipari and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins have been down this road before. In fact, a sense of déjà vu was inescapable on Wednesday when reporters asked Huggins to repeat a story he told before the 2010 East Regional in Syracuse about his heart attack and Calipari's cousin.
More about that story later. The more, ahem, pressing question the two coaches faced entering Thursday night's Midwest Regional semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena was how well Calipari's top-seeded and undefeated Wildcats (36-0) would handle the full-court press employed by Huggins' Mountaineers (25-9). Despite some bold pregame bluster from Huggins' players, Kentucky was a prohibitive favorite.
Of course, that was the case back in 2010 when Calipari first began to utilize the one-and-done model, building his program around freshmen who figured to leave early for the NBA. That team had five first-round draft picks: junior Patrick Patterson and freshmen John Wall, who was the No. 1 overall pick, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton.
As good as that team was, it was upset by a veteran West Virginia team coming off a Big East Tournament title. Asked if there's a lesson from that game that his current Mountaineers could apply to Thursday's meeting, Huggins said, "Yeah, if Cal promises to miss his first 20 threes like they did in 2010, that would help if we could get him to do that."
Huggins' defensive pressure got to the Wildcats that night as they finished 4-for-32 from three-point range, with all four makes coming in the final 3:29.
Calipari got a measure of revenge the following season when Kentucky scored a third-round win over West Virginia on the way to the Final Four, but overall, Calipari entered the game with a 2-8 record against Huggins, a friend he knew from growing up in the Pittsburgh area.
"I watched him play when he was at West Virginia and they played Duquesne and Pitt and always respected him as a player," Calipari said of Huggins. "The first time I met him in person, he had just got the Walsh College job. He was 23, 24 years old and became a head coach."
That long association and their subsequent rivalry after Calipari became a college head coach at Massachusetts is the subtext for Huggins' story about the heart attack he suffered in September 2002 while coaching Cincinnati.
As Huggins tells it, he was at the Pittsburgh airport when he began sweating profusely and passed out on the sidewalk.
"They scooped me up, put me in the ambulance, and I'm in and out of consciousness and they're pumping morphine into me," Huggins said.
He asked the EMT in the back of the ambulance how far they had to go to the hospital and was told 22 minutes. "I said, 'Man, I'm not making 22 minutes,' so he said, 'Abort, abort, abort.' I'm passing out and coming back, and I noticed when I came back to, he was paying a lot better attention to me.
"I was fairly coherent, and he said, 'Coach, listen, I can't let you die. I'm John Calipari's cousin, and you can't die until we beat you at least once.' "
Calipari smiled and said it was his cousin Mark who saved Huggins' life that day, preserving their rivalry and making yet another NCAA playoff meeting between the two coaches possible.