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New Big 12 Hoops Coaches Already Have Connections

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IRVING (AP) - Before they became new Big 12 head basketball coaches, Missouri’s Frank Haith and Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy had already known each other nearly two decades.

Their friendship goes back to when Haith became a Texas A&M assistant in the early 1990s. They met after Kennedy had already been an Aggies assistant during a stretch of 12 seasons when he worked at eight different schools.

Later, after head coaching stops at Centenary and Southeastern Louisiana, Kennedy spent the 2005-06 season as an assistant at Miami for Haith.

“I wanted someone that I trusted and had a lot of respect for,” Haith said Thursday during a conference call with all the Big 12 coaches. “Billy wanted another challenge, and by coming over to work with us at Miami, I thought he had a chance to get a better job or opportunity, and it did work out for him that way. He’s a great man, and also a great coach.”

Haith, who is also a former Texas assistant, and Kennedy are now going to be coaching against each other in the same league.

They account for half of the new coaches in the Big 12, a conference now reduced to 10 teams after the official departures of Nebraska and Colorado. The other newcomers are Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger and Texas Tech’s Billy Gillispie, who both had previous connections to the league.

Kruger is a former Kansas State coach, assistant and player, though that was when the Wildcats and Sooners were still part of the Big Eight — before the formation of the Big 12.

“It’s certainly changed, no question about that. But it definitely feels familiar,” said Kruger, who spent the past seven seasons at UNLV. “Growing up in Kansas and the Midwest, it’s much more familiar than different.”

Gillispie is returning to the Big 12 after four years away. He was Texas A&M’s coach from 2004-07 before two seasons at Kentucky and then two years out of college coaching.

“As coaches, you’ve got the best job in the world that you could ever have,” Gillispie said. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the court and trying to help these guys get better and make Texas Tech basketball what we believe it can be.”

Kruger came into the league with more of a connection that just his Kansas State roots.

When he left Illinois in 2000 for the NBA, first to be the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach and then an assistant for the New York Knicks, he was replaced by Bill Self.

“Of all the coaches I followed, Lon was without question the easiest one to follow,” Self said Thursday. “He’s really a good guy and about as ego-less as a coach in our business can be. He was so into helping me help the kids that he coached at Illinois get better.”

Self spent three seasons with the Illini before becoming head coach at Kansas in 2003, which matches him with Baylor’s Scott Drew as the second-longest tenured coaches in the Big 12 behind Rick Barnes, who is going into his 14th season at Texas.

Kansas was 35-3 last season and made it to an NCAA regional final, but the defending Big 12 champions have to make big changes with twin forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris and freshman guard Josh Selby declaring for early entry into the NBA draft. Marcus Morris was the Big 12 Player of the Year while Markieff led the league in field goal percentage and rebounding.

“There’s a handful of teams in America that lost a lot of guys, certainly in our league,” Self said. “You look at Texas and you look at us as losing unbelievably important personnel to our success.”

Texas won’t have a returning starter from last season’s team that won 28 games. In addition to senior starters Dogus Balbay and Gary Johnson, Big 12 freshman of the year Tristan Thompson, leading scorer Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph all left the Longhorns early.

At least guard Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson decided to stay for another season with the Jayhawks.

“I don’t think we’ll step a step backwards, I think we’ll take a step sideways,” Self said. “I’m excited about next year, I do think we’ll be good, but I think it’d be less margin for error and I also think that our (35-3) record, it will be hard to match. But I said that last year after losing those guys and we ended up doing better.”

After his eight different assistant jobs in 12 seasons and his head coaching stops in Louisiana, Kennedy went from Miami to being head coach at Murray State and now Texas A&M, which has changed drastically since he was there during the 1990-91 season.

“Texas A&M and College Station is a Murray State on steroids. It’s just changed in 20 years,” Kennedy said. “The growth and development of not only the facilities here, but the university as a whole. … There is a lot more happening here in Bryan-College Station.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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