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West Virginia's Bob Huggins, Kentucky's John Calipari to renew friendship, rivalry

| Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, 12:39 a.m.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins faces close friend John Calipari and Kentucky on Saturday.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins faces close friend John Calipari and Kentucky on Saturday.

Before trying to get the best of each other in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, close friends Bob Huggins of West Virginia and John Calipari of Kentucky are renewing their bond at Huggins' charity event.

Calipari will be the special guest at Huggins' annual fish fry Friday night, a day before the Wildcats (15-5) play No. 7 West Virginia (16-4) for the first time in Morgantown since 1970.

The sold-out event, now in its sixth year, benefits an endowment fund at the WVU Cancer Institute created by Huggins in honor of his late mother, Norma Mae Huggins, who died of colon cancer in 2003. Calipari's mother, Donna Mae Calipari, died of cancer in 2010.

Calipari has compared Saturday's game, their first regular-season meeting since 2008, to the Hatfields of West Virginia inviting the McCoys of Kentucky over for supper. Yet he's often voiced his disdain for playing against friends.

It's a renewal of a relationship that goes back to when Huggins played at West Virginia in the mid-1970s. Huggins was a teammate of Joe Fryz, one of Calipari's high school friends in Moon.

They would cross paths again in 1980 at a basketball camp where Calipari was working and Huggins was in his first head coaching job at age 27 at Walsh College in Ohio.

Calipari always has respected Huggins' coaching style and how hard and physical his teams played.

“We have the challenge of challenges playing who we're playing and how they're playing, on their court where they just don't lose,” Calipari said.

This won't be Calipari's first coaching trip to Morgantown. In January 1995, he brought Marcus Camby and No. 1 UMass to The Coliseum. The Minutemen overcame an 18-point deficit over the final five minutes of regulation and won in overtime.

Huggins is 8-3 against Calipari-coached teams, with most of those matchups in Conference USA while Huggins was at Cincinnati and Calipari took over at Memphis in 2000.

In 2002, when Huggins suffered a heart attack and collapsed at Pittsburgh's airport, Calipari was among the first to visit him at a hospital despite restrictions that only family was allowed in the room.

It so happens Calipari's cousin was in the emergency vehicle that transported Huggins. Huggins, who was 5-0 against Calipari at the time, recalled the cousin tapped him on the leg, told Huggins who he was, and said, “We're not going to let you die until he beats you at least once.'”

At West Virginia, Huggins defeated Calipari's Kentucky team in 2010 to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1959. The Wildcats beat West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and '15.

Huggins, whose team had risen to a No. 2 ranking a few weeks ago, is trying to find more cohesive play after West Virginia lost three of its last four games. And facing Kentucky during a week when the freshmen-laden Wildcats dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since March 2014 is no consolation.

“Kentucky's Kentucky,” Huggins said. “You've got a Hall of Famer sitting on the bench. I'm amazed that Cal can take guys and get them to play together the way they do and have them organized the way he has them organized in a short period of time. I've guy three-year guys that still don't know what they're doing. That's what jumps out at me.”

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