PHILADELPHIA — Lon Kruger considers Steve Fisher a friend in the coaching ranks.
Thing is, Fisher hasn't exactly been kind to Kruger — not in the win-loss column anyway.
Over the years, Kruger's teams have played Fisher's teams 20 times. Kruger has won only six of those games.
“They've beaten us a lot more than we've beat them,” the Oklahoma coach acknowledged on the eve of his team's NCAA Tournament opener against Fisher and San Diego State. “I have no idea what the numbers are, but we're way on the short end of that.
“As far as (Friday) night, I don't think that'll play into that.”
The Sooners better hope not.
Fisher has Kruger's number, a dominance that's been established over many years and several schools. So, in a win-or-go-home game when both teams will be looking for any advantage possible, you've got to give the coaching nod to Fisher.
The two coaches first met when Kruger was the head coach at Florida and Fisher was the head coach at Michigan. Their relationship grew as they played each other in the Big Ten when Kruger moved to Illinois, and they overlapped for one season as head coaches, but the relationship between the similarly unassuming coaches really took off in the Mountain West Conference.
Fisher had already been at San Diego State a few years when Kruger took over at UNLV. They started to see each other at league meetings, on the recruiting trail, during the season, even on Nike-sponsored trips, and they bonded.
So did their wives.
“When we go to an event, we find ways to have dinner or go for lunch and talk about non-basketball stuff — ‘How are your kids doing?' and that sort of thing,” Fisher said.
Kruger said, “Just a good guy. Just a good family.”
As close as the two coaches are personally, Fisher has lapped Kruger in the win-loss column when their teams play.
The first five seasons that their teams played each other — 1996-97 in the Big Ten and 2004-08 in the Mountain West — the coaches' series was fairly even. Fisher held only a 6-5 advantage over Kruger. But the last nine times their teams played before Kruger left UNLV, Kruger's teams only won once.
That stretch of domination culminated with the 2010-11 season, the best in San Diego State history. In a season Fisher and the Aztecs went to the Sweet 16, they beat Kruger and UNLV three times.
“If you looked at the games ... most of them have been really close,” Fisher said.
Single-digit games have been the norm in this series. Even in those three victories during that great season at San Diego State, Fisher and the Aztecs didn't beat Kruger and the Runnin' Rebels by more than six points.
“We've had close game, close game, close game every time we've played,” Fisher said.
One of the closest was also one of the most bizarre.
It came during the 2004-05 season, and with 28.5 seconds left, San Diego State led 81-71 and seemed to have victory secured. Then, UNLV scored off a rebound with 17.8 seconds left, hit three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt with 13.6 seconds left and cut the San Diego State lead to five.
Then things really got wild.
San Diego State missed two free throws, and UNLV made a three-pointer with 7.6 seconds left. San Diego State stopped its scoreless streak when it made the second of two free throws, but that only gave the Aztecs a three-point lead with 5.6 seconds left.
UNLV capped its wild rally with a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Runnin' Rebels won in overtime.
“And he genuinely felt bad after the game,” Fisher said of Kruger.
“Not as bad as I did, but he felt bad.”
Kruger actually hadn't brought up that game in interviews this week because he knows how painful it was for Fisher.
These guys are just that close.
Kruger and Fisher admit that coaching against a friend is different. More emotion. More empathy.
“I wish we weren't playing one another in the first round,” Fisher said.
Given the way Fisher's teams have dominated Kruger's teams, you've got to think Kruger wishes they weren't playing each other either.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.