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Monday, April 21, 2014

Huggins ready for matchup with his Wildcat friends

BY KELLIS ROBINETT
The Wichita Eagle

MANHATTAN — Bob Huggins doesn't know, or particularly care about, the type of reception he will get from Kansas State fans when he coaches in front of them for the first time in West Virginia colors Thursday night at Intrust Bank Arena.

But he will be surprised if he hears more than a smattering of boos from the crowd. He doesn't think they have reason to be upset with him.

The way he sees it, the Wildcat basketball program is in better shape today under coach Frank Martin than it was when he left after his lone season on the job in 2007.

"They ought to be happy I left," Huggins said in a phone interview. "Frank has done an unbelievable job. From coaching to recruiting, he's done a phenomenal job."

Martin has gone 100-43 since taking over as head coach. He has guided K-State to three NCAA Tournaments and in 2010 reached the Elite Eight. His four seasons have been some of the most successful in school history.

Many predicted that type of run when Huggins, who established himself as a winner at Cincinnati but faced an ugly exit after pleading no contest to a DUI, came to Manhattan. The plan was for him to oversee that progress with Martin helping on the sideline and big-name recruits Michael Beasley, Bill Walker and Jacob Pullen scoring on the court. So when K-State fans learned that wasn't going to be the case, they were upset with his quick decision to leave.

Huggins has since visited Manhattan on a few occasions, and likes to remember his time living in the Little Apple as an enjoyable year in which he met nice people and had "a great experience." But there were hurt feelings at the end.

"Some people were upset," Huggins said. "That was the initial reaction."

But things have since worked out for everyone involved. Huggins reached his second Final Four in 2010 with the Mountaineers, West Virginia will soon join the Big 12 as a full member and the Wildcats now expect to make the postseason every year.

That wasn't always the case before Huggins arrived in Manhattan. Leading up to his lone season, there was so much pessimism around the basketball program that he remembers having to convince fans to purchase season tickets at Catbacker events. There were serious doubters.

"The people who didn't get in when the whole deal started are probably sitting quite a few rows back of where they could have been," Huggins said.

Though he gives full credit for the turnaround to Martin, his coaching staff and former assistant Dalonte Hill, Huggins also points out how he refused to stand in their way.

"Let's be honest. I left behind Frank, Dalonte, Brad (Underwood) and Andy (Assaley). I could have taken them," Huggins said. "I could have probably taken the players, too. It was the right thing to do. Kansas State was great to me. I loved the people there.

"I would never have left Kansas State for any place other than here. This was my last opportunity to come home and be around my family. I didn't do it when I had the opportunity the first time. You know how hindsight is 20-20. I should have."

Huggins hopes K-State fans realize all that, and have moved on from their initial emotions. Based on his return to Cincinnati for a game in 2009, where he received loud applause, he is hoping for the best.

Martin is too. During his time in charge of the K-State basketball program, he has gone out of his way to thank Huggins.

"He wanted to make sure we finished the job we came here to do," Martin said. "He has got his own team and his own program but he still lives ours through us.... We wouldn't have the success we've had if it wasn't because of him."

He views Huggins as a mentor, and says one of the main reasons he put a neutral-court series with West Virginia on the schedule was to give Huggins a chance to coach in Kansas again. He, and the rest of his staff, figured that's something K- State fans wanted.

"I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't get a standing ovation," said K-State assistant coach Brad Underwood.

They could have waited to find out. Once West Virginia joins the Big 12, the Wildcats and Mountaineers will play twice a season. They should quickly develop a rivalry, with Thursday's game in Wichita serving as a starting point.

Boos or cheers. Win or lose. No matter what happens, Huggins knows he will enjoy it.

"I certainly don't want Frank to lose and Frank doesn't want me to lose, but at least when you play a very dear friend you are happy for them when they win," Huggins said. "I'm looking forward to it. That is much better than losing to someone you don't know or you're not close to or maybe a very rare instance where it's somebody you don't care for. Then you're really miserable."

Check Kellis Robinett's K-State blog at blogs.kansas.com/kstated. Reach him at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com.

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