PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Steve Fisher and Lon Kruger forged a friendship with roots in the Big Ten, tightened in the Mountain West and stretched all the way to opposite benches in the NCAA tournament.
It's a matchup they'd have loved to miss.
One friend is going to lose and the other will take it almost as hard as if he lost himself.
"It's always different when you're facing someone that you've been really gotten close to over the years," Kruger said.
Kruger will shunt personal feelings for 40 minutes when he leads 10th-seed Oklahoma (20-11) against Fisher and No. 7 seed San Diego State (22-10) on Friday. Once the ball tips, Kruger will make a dash of history as the first coach to lead five different programs to the NCAA tournament. He brought Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV into the tournament, becoming the first coach to take the Gators to the Final Four in 1994.
His ol' pal Fisher is a tournament-tested lifer, as well. He won a national championship with Michigan in 1989 and led the Fab Five Wolverines to consecutive national runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1993.
Yes, Fisher and Kruger coached in Final Fours before most of their players were even born, and they became close before their rosters finished middle school. They just naturally hit it off and now take time at various summer camps or recruiting stops to have lunch together, or gather the families for dinner. Fisher and Kruger make it a point to talk about more than basketball, always checking up on kids or health, not just hoops.
"Lon Kruger is an exceptional basketball coach, and I think people that know him would say a better person," Fisher said.
Most fans won't ever get to know Kruger. But they do see his resume — it's pretty easy to judge him as an exceptional coach.
He has 514 career wins and led the Sooners back to the tournament for the first time since Blake Griffin took them there in 2009. Led by Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, and Amath M'Baye, Kruger whipped the Sooners into winners, highlighted by a win against Kansas and an at-large berth out of the Big 12.
They took some pretty big steps along the way.
The next one is winning a tournament game. Good thing they have just the coach who knows how to win in the tournament.
"We know when he talks about the NCAA tournament, we should definitely listen," M'Baye said.
Kruger took Kansas State to the 1988 regional final, the Gators to the Final Four, and UNLV to the round of 16. He coached Illinois for four seasons and never got out of the second round.
"You don't get here without good players," Kruger said.
Osby, a 6-foot-8 forward who transferred from Mississippi State, was first-team All-Big 12. Pledger and M'Baye were third-team selections. Osby led OU in scoring (15.8 points), rebounding (7.0) and field-goal percentage (.522) to became the program's first first-team All-Big 12 since Griffin in 2009.
While the Sooners are on the way back up, the Aztecs just keep on rolling. Fisher was hired in 1999, two years after he was fired at Michigan, and inherited one of the country's worst programs. The previous season, the Aztecs won only four games while going winless on the road. His first team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West and, once again, winless away from San Diego.
Fisher has made the lean years a distant memory and led the Aztecs to their fourth straight trip to the tournament, including an appearance in the round of 16 in 2011. Once on college basketball's scrap heap, the Aztecs are one of only 17 schools to play in four straight NCAA tournaments. They lost in the Mountain West tournament semifinals and earned an at-large berth.
The Aztecs garnered some serious frequent-flier miles for the this trip. They traveled 2,732 miles to get to Philadelphia.
They may as well stick around for the weekend.
Jamaal Franklin, their 6-5 guard, leads them with 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and was a first-team All-Mountain West pick. Guard Chase Tapley averages 13.5 points and was a third-team selection.
San Diego State can now boast of seniors who have played in four straight tournaments. They're counting on that experience to take them into the second weekend and beyond.
"We feel we're one of the best teams in the tournament," Franklin said, "and we can win a lot of games."
Follow Dan Gelston at www.Twitter.com/APGelston