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As far as mentors go, Steve Hawkins couldn’t have asked for a better one.

The Western Michigan coach maintained a close friendship with John Wooden until the former UCLA coach’s death in 2010 at age 99.

“Immeasurable,” Hawkins said of Wooden’s influence. Hawkins spoke at a news conference Wednesday to preview today’s NCAA tournament game against Syracuse in First Niagara Center.

“Our whole philosophy of our program is based on his definition of success.”

That definition: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Hawkins still was in high school when he met Wooden. Hawkins was a counselor at the legendary coach’s summer basketball camps. One of Hawkins’ responsibilities was to drive Wooden to and from camp.

The two spent hours together in the car, with Hawkins absorbing wisdom from one of the most revered coaches in sports history.

“I used to talk to Coach all the time about not so much X’s and O’s, but more about player management, situations like this, how to handle big stages, whatever it is,” Hawkins said. “I’ve relied very heavy on Coach’s words, and it keeps you grounded.

“The biggest influence he’s had on me is it keeps you very, very grounded in terms of what it is that we do. I really consider myself an educator first. That comes from Coach Wooden.”

Hawkins, in his 11th year at Western Michigan, was named the Mid-American Conference coach of the year for guiding the Broncos to 23-9 overall and 14-4 MAC records.

Western Michigan also boasts being one of only seven schools in this year’s tournament with perfect graduation rates. The entire team has higher than a 3.0 grade-point average.

“This is all fun, and the NCAA tournament and everything we’re going to go through … and everything’s all about win, win, win, win, win,” Hawkins said. “Coach didn’t feel that way, and that has had a huge influence on me.

“It’s all about giving your best. I could go on and on about the things that Coach has meant to me, but it keeps me grounded, realizing no matter what happens here, I’ve still got to take out the trash on Thursday night.”

Hawkins’ connection to those great UCLA teams doesn’t end with Wooden. Broncos assistant coach Larry Farmer played under Wooden from 1970 to 1973 and is the winningest player in NCAA history, with a record of 89-1.

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It sure would be nice if college basketball had more room for in-state rivalries like Ohio State and Dayton, teams that will meet at 12:15 p.m. today in First Niagara Center.

Unfortunately, the two schools, separated by just 68 miles down Interstate 70 in Ohio, have not faced each other in the regular season since 1988.

Dayton coach Archie Miller, a former Ohio State assistant, didn’t even bother to lament the issue.

“Everybody would like an opportunity to play them,” Miller said. “You’re not going to get that opportunity, though, in this day and age of college basketball and scheduling. It’s just not possible.”

Ohio State has played in-state opponents such as Miami of Ohio, Bowling Green and Cleveland State. But they avoid the dangerous mid-major trio of Dayton, Xavier and Cincinnati.

If Ohio State loses to those schools, then it takes a potential hit from the NCAA tournament seeding committee. The Buckeyes play 18 conference games in the Big 10. They get most of the scheduling difficulty boost they need from those games.

“I think that people don’t understand in terms of what goes on in a college basketball season,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “It’s just in our minds not as conducive.”

“We’ve just been through playing 21 straight Big Ten basketball games,” Matta said. “There’s rivalries. There’s nationally televised games. We’ve got guys that our opponents have recruited. They’ve got guys we were recruiting. There’s so many side notes over those 21 straight games that form the perspective.”

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Hawkins and his team saw a version of the Syracuse zone twice this season, when the Broncos played MAC rival Eastern Michigan. The Eagles are coached by former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy and have employed the defense since his arrival.

“The zone is very similar,” Hawkins said. “You know, we hope it’s a help, but the zone is very similar. The players are different. Now, Murph has done a terrific job of bringing in” players “very similar to coach Boeheim. He recruits to that defense, recruits to that zone. They actually at times could be as big as Syracuse.

“The difference with Syracuse is, when Eastern Michigan went to the bench they’re bringing in a 6-5 guy. When Syracuse goes to the bench, they bring in a 6-7 guy, then they’ll bring in a 6-10 guy, then they’ll bring in a guy that’s 8-foot tall. It seems like it’s never-ending.”

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Ohio State assistant Greg Paulus grew up in Syracuse and followed Jim Boeheim’s teams closely. Paulus played four years at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski.

But he also considers Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone a significant influence on his career.

Paulus, after playing at Duke, enrolled at Syracuse in 2009 and won the starting quarterback job in Marrone’s first season as head coach.

“I learned a lot about myself, a lot about changing the culture of a program,” Paulus said. “We’ve seen where Syracuse was before Coach Marrone and where it is now. It’s come a long way, and I’m proud to have that opportunity.

“Moving forward, I lean on those experiences, even though they’re different sports. I know what I got out of that, a great deal.”

Paulus turned down scholarships to play football at Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.), choosing instead to concentrate solely on basketball. At Duke, he became only the fourth freshman to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in assists. He graduated in four years, leaving him one year of eligibility if he wanted it.

Marrone wanted to establish a new culture, and a winner from Duke basketball was a gift. Paulus beat out incumbent Cameron Dantley and redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib for the job and was named a captain.

Paulus’ stats were mediocre. He completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,024 yards and 13 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. The New Orleans Saints invited Paulus to minicamp before he returned to basketball coaching full time.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Paulus said. “The opportunity to play football for a year, get my masters from the Newhouse School of Communications, have a chance to play for Doug Marrone is something that I’ll never forget.”

Tim Graham, Jay Skurski, Mark Gaughan and Bob DiCesare contributed to this report.