NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie and Fred Hoiberg met as high school basketball stars more than two decades ago when they went on the same recruiting trip to Arizona.
Ollie chose UConn instead. Hoiberg picked Iowa State.
“I think it worked out for both of us,” Ollie said with a smile.
Each now coaches his alma mater, and they’ll face each other Friday in the Sweet Sixteen.
In between that shared visit to Tucson and this week’s NCAA tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden, Ollie and Hoiberg were teammates for part of a season with the Chicago Bulls in 2001-02. Six years later, when Hoiberg was an assistant general manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he lobbied to sign Ollie because he knew the veteran could provide needed leadership.
Those sorts of intangibles are why both lasted in the NBA so long, and why it’s little surprise the friends landed in coaching.
“Kevin and I weren’t very good players, but to stick around — me for 10, him for 13 years — you have to have some of those qualities: a work ethic, good teammate,” Hoiberg said Thursday.
Those lengthy pro careers show in the 41-year-old coaches’ philosophies in college, the way they try to run their offenses to create mismatches for their best players. That style has certainly worked in their brief careers on the bench.
Ollie is in just his second season as head coach, promoted after mentor Jim Calhoun retired. The seventh-seeded Huskies (28-8), who were ineligible for the postseason last year, upset second-seeded Villanova on Saturday.
Hoiberg, in his fourth season, has led the third-seeded Cyclones (28-7) to three straight NCAA bids for just the second time in school history. His first tournament game as coach came against none other than UConn, when Ollie was an assistant: a Cyclones victory in 2012.
Hoiberg’s up-tempo approach has allowed him to repeatedly overhaul his roster with transfers and keep winning.
“Just letting us play free, giving us the confidence to go out there and play, play for each other,” said DeAndre Kane, who has thrived in his one season in Ames after coming over from Marshall.
The Cyclones hadn’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 2000, and they did it without third-leading scorer Georges Niang, who broke his foot in their tournament opener. Hoiberg goes into each game with a card listing plays he thinks can expose the opponent’s weaknesses. One side was nearly filled with sets that run through the versatile Niang, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who averaged 16.7 points and 3.6 assists.
Iowa State still managed to eke past North Carolina on Kane’s game-winner Sunday, then at least had a few more days of preparation to add some wrinkles for Niang’s teammates before its next game. And the guy whose plays fill the other side of that card will still take the court Friday.
At 6-foot-4, Kane averages 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists and countless matchup problems.
UConn star guard Shabazz Napier is just 6-1 but plays far bigger — as his 5.9 rebounds per game attest. He’ll take on the main assignment of defending Kane, but Ollie expects every player in the rotation will help out at some point.
Napier was a freshman on the 2011 national championship team, learning ball fakes and leadership skills from Kemba Walker. He was among the talented players who stayed loyal to UConn when they could have transferred because of the academic sanctions.
After the Huskies beat former Big East rival Villanova to return to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since that title team, Ollie told his players they’d come full circle. UConn was ineligible for the Big East tournament at the Garden in its last season in the conference.
Now the Huskies are playing in the Sweet Sixteen in the building where they won seven Big East tourney titles. Ollie warned that being the local favorite doesn’t guarantee anything. After all, UConn beat Memphis on the Tigers’ home floor in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Still, Napier senses an edge from all those fans making the short trip to the Garden.
“When we are at home games and we’re tired, and they get us going, I don’t think anybody on the court would be tired after that,” he said. “Guys are just exerting all their energy that they possibly have and pushing themselves to get the game.”
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