The world of big-time college basketball may seem like a vast expanse with 32 conferences and 347 teams, ranging as far west as the University of Hawaii and as far east as the University of Maine.
There are colossal superpowers such as Duke and North Carolina, and there are recent NCAA Division I additions such as Seattle University and Cal-State Bakersfield.
And yet it’s amazing how small that world can really be.
Take for example the Washington Huskies’ opponent on Thursday in the NCAA tournament round of 16 – the West Virginia Mountaineers.
On the surface, West Virginia has little connection to the Huskies, except for four common opponents – Texas A&M, Portland, Georgetown and Marquette.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar and West Virginia counterpart Bob Huggins, not only coached against each other when they were at Saint Louis and Cincinnati, respectively, but have a friendship that started a decade before that.
“I was with a group called Athletes in Action (AIA) and we were based in Cincinnati,” Romar said.
When Romar’s NBA career ended in 1985, he joined Athletes in Action and stayed for seven years, playing in 224 games.
Romar began attending the University of Cincinnati, where Huggins took over in 1989, to work out with the Bearcats and watch them practice.
“I was still playing and staying in shape in those days and I’d play with their guys quite a bit,” Romar said.
Romar also finished his undergraduate degree at Cincinnati.
He got to know Huggins pretty well and considers the Mountaineers coach a true friend in the business.
What did Romar see from the notoriously quick-tempered and ultra-intense Huggins?
“What struck me in watching his practices was how demanding he was of his team,” Romar said. “He had a philosophy, you could tell he knew exactly what he wanted and he recruited those players that fit his philosophy. What also struck me, … that away from the barking in practice, was how nice of guy he was.”
That closeness to Huggins and the Bearcats didn’t pay many benefits for Coach Romar, who went 2-5 against Cincinnati in his three seasons at Saint Louis (1999-2002).
“I think we slipped up and got a win,” Romar said.
One of those wins stands out as more than a slip. In Romar’s first season, Saint Louis knocked off then-No. 1 Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The win propelled the Billikens to a tournament title and into the NCAA tourney.
Since then, the two coaches have changed teams – Huggins twice. But they remain friends.
Romar said hoped there was a mutual respect between the two men, but said there was a respect, “definitely from my end.”
He need not have worried.
“Lorenzo is a very good friend of mine,” Huggins said Sunday after West Virginia’s 68-59 win over Missouri. “He’s a great guy. Lorenzo was in Cincinnati for a long time. He’s a wonderful human being. I have great respect for him as a person and great respect for him as a coach.”
The two degrees of separation between the Huskies and Mountaineers don’t end there.
It trickles down to the players. Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas had Huggins watch several of his games at South Kent Preparatory School in Connecticut. The Huskies guard admitted he was a little intimidated by Huggins and his intensity.
“I was scared to talk to him,” Thomas said. “He just looks like he’s not in a good mood. It seems like he’s never smiling, even when they win.”
And then there are the teams’ top players, Washington’s Quincy Pondexter and West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler.
The two stars have plenty in common – both are seniors who lead their respective teams in scoring and rebounding.
And they’re friends, too.
Pondexter and Butler played and roomed together last summer on Team USA at the World University Games.
“He’s just a big kid,” Pondexter said. “He jokes around a lot. He’s really a good person and another person I really got along with. … We had a lot of chances to bond.”
But the bonding will go out the window once tipoff comes at the Carrier Dome on Thursday.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Pondexter said. “We both really want to win. We’re both seniors. I never thought I’d be playing against him.”
It’s a small basketball world, after all.