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Old friends in for another tense ride in Tampa

Associated Press / March 19, 2011

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TAMPA — West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Kentucky’s John Calipari can both laugh now.

They may have slightly different recollections of a humorous story they repeated on the eve of another matchup between the Mountaineers and Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament, but that just makes the tale about the ambulance ride Huggins took after suffering a heart attack in 2002 that much more entertaining.

“Cal likes to tell it better than I do,’’ Huggins said yesterday, recalling one of the details the close friends agree on — Calipari’s cousin was in the emergency vehicle that transported Huggins from the Pittsburgh airport to the hospital. “Of course Cal wasn’t dying and I was.’’

Huggins’s version ends with his counterpart’s cousin identifying himself and declaring: “We’re not going to let you die until he beats you at least once.’’

Calipari was one of the first to visit Huggins in the hospital. As for the ambulance ride, he said his cousin told Huggins who he was and assured Huggins he was going to be fine. “And that’s when Bob said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not making it.’ ’’

The coaches will put their friendship aside today when fourth-seeded Kentucky (26-8) and fifth-seeded West Virginia (21-11) square off in the East Regional. The teams also met in last year’s regional final, with the Mountaineers winning, 73-66, to advance to the Final Four.

Huggins is 8-1 against Calipari-coached teams — 5-0 before the heart attack and 3-1 since.

West Virginia’s Joe Mazzulla, who scored 17 points and spearheaded a defense that forced Kentucky into 4-of-32 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, said it really wouldn’t seem like much of a rematch because the makeup of both teams had changed since the last meeting in Syracuse, N.Y.

Mountaineers star Da’Sean Butler has moved on. So have Kentucky’s John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson.

“It’s like they have a completely different team. I’m not sure they have that inside presence that they had from Cousins, even though Josh Harrellson does a pretty good job,’’ Mazzulla said.

“On our end, we’re a much different team. We kind of spread the load out as far as what we’re going to do offensively, and we really have to rely on defense and rebounding. So, I don’t really think it’s too much of a rematch.’’

Kentucky survived its tournament opener Thursday, beating Princeton, 59-57, on freshman star Brandon Knight’s only basket of the night — a driving layup with two seconds left.

In the second game this afternoon, Florida (27-7) will play UCLA (23-10) in Southeast Regional play.

Yesterday, UCLA center Josh Smith — all 6 foot 10 inches, 325 pounds of him — was the focus of the Gators’ attention.

“It’s not like I’m like the Hulk or anything,’’ Smith said.

Uh, Florida disagrees. The No. 2 seed is keying on Smith. With good reason, too.

The freshman from Kent, Wash., the one simply nicknamed “Big Josh,’’ was a major factor in No. 7 seed UCLA’s 78-76 win over Michigan State. He had 14 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, an assist, and a block as he dominated the paint.

“He’s a mountain,’’ Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s a freight train. I would say every game that Josh Smith goes into, he has a physical advantage. I don’t think there’s any question about that.’’

Florida beat UCLA in the Final Four in 2006 and 2007. The Gators had a significant size advantage, with 6-10 Al Horford and 6-11 Joakim Noah starting and 6-9 Chris Richard coming off the bench. Horford, Noah, and the Gators dominated both meetings.

Smith arrived on campus around 370 pounds, but has been shedding weight ever since. He checked in at 323 pounds a little more than a week ago.

So how will Florida’s frontcourt — center Vernon Macklin, forward Alex Tyus and reserves Patric Young and Erik Murphy — fare?

“It’s going to be a real tough challenge,’’ said Young. “I’m 245; he’s [325]. I’m going to be giving it all I’ve got and he’s probably going to be chilling.’’