Right place, right time for Washington coach Mike Neighbors

Neighbors aims to improve Pac-12 (2:24)

LaChina Robinson and Mechelle Voepel break down the impact Washington coach Mike Neighbors has had on the Pac-12 conference. (2:24)

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you've heard even a little bit about Washington women's basketball coach Mike Neighbors, you already know he's the guy with whom you'd probably want to take a long road trip.

Whether it's movies or music or books or sports, Neighbors has a detailed list of favorites and could regale you with the reasons why he ranked them as he did. You'd never get bored listening to him.

If Neighbors were going to tell the tale of this particular season -- which is culminating in an improbable yet well-earned trip to the Women's Final Four -- what would be the best medium: song, film, or novel?

Maybe it would take all three to do justice to this coach and this team, the No. 7 seed that beat the No. 2 seed, and then took out the No. 4 seed that beat the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Regional.

Add all that up, and you get a team of Final Four first-timers who believe even if virtually no one predicted them advancing to this stage -- where they will face No. 4 seed Syracuse on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- it's exactly how this season should have gone.

At the center of it is a man who lives with heart issues that, before he turned 30, made him take stock of everything he knew about life. "I was not a very independent thinker," Neighbors said. "I had a heart attack at 29. It was an eye-opening moment that your life's really, really short."

He evaluated himself and everything around him. He recognized he wasn't a very fast or comprehensive reader, and immediately set about changing that. He left teaching and coaching at the high school level to go into college coaching, despite it initially being a drastic pay cut. He began to write down his philosophies on living and working, then passed them around for people to read.

In short, his health issues -- his body has the inability to break down plaque -- made him the opposite of someone who's afraid of what might happen. To the contrary, he focuses on everything he dreams about happening.

"I think it made me more independent," said Neighbors, 47, who had a subsequent heart attack at 38. "I stopped worrying about what anybody thinks."

However, there are people whose opinion Neighbors greatly values: his players. Much of his coaching philosophy is based on not wasting any resources, so he listens and learns from players, along with teaching them.

"He trusts us, and that's why we're here now," redshirt junior Katie Collier said. "We have an open space to talk about things. We're able to have fun, laugh and joke around. You fall in love again with basketball.

"But he knows when to lock in, too, and we're going to be listening. But, ultimately, basketball is fun. It's supposed to be."

Over and over this season, you would hear the word "trust" in reference to the Huskies. It was a two-way street in that regard, with a coach who believed his players could make good decisions, and players who thought they were better at that skill because their coach had so much faith in them.

"I would have loved playing for him," said Washington assistant coach Adia Barnes, who competed collegiately at Arizona and then in the WNBA. "He's a players' coach; he gives them a lot of freedom and independence. They're able to make a lot of decisions.

"He lets them be adults. If they make mistakes, there are consequences, but it's not such a controlled environment about everything. I think it's good for them, and they respect it. We don't have this thick rulebook; you just need to be able to adhere to standards."

Neighbors was a high school teacher and coach when he had his first heart attack. Then he decided to go work at his alma mater, Arkansas, regardless of the big pay cut. And thus began a new adventure.

"We are experiencing everything that the Final Four and the city of Indianapolis has to offer. We are looking forward to the games, but we're still soaking all this in." Washington coach Mike Neighbors

"I've always been right-time, right-place guy," Neighbors said of the chance to learn from Gary Blair, the current Texas A&M women's coach who was then with Arkansas.

"And I don't think it would have happened for me had I not gotten a start under somebody like Coach Blair, who is obviously concerned with growing our game and giving back to the game. And making sure that if you do that, then the game will give back to you eventually."

Neighbors worked as an assistant at Tulsa, Colorado, Arkansas (again), and Xavier before coming to Washington with former head coach Kevin McGuff. Neighbors ascended to the head coaching position for the Huskies when McGuff left for Ohio State in 2013.

But it was something Neighbors had heavily researched while he was at Xavier with McGuff that subsequently has helped the Pac-12 improve as a conference.

"At Xavier, we were having a really hard time earning the seed in the NCAA tournament that we thought we deserved," Neighbors said. "Kevin knew I was into analytics. He wanted me to take the summer and study scheduling and see what it would take for us to become a 2 or 3 seed, which we all know statistically is the best route to a Final Four. I don't think he understood how deeply I delve into things when I'm assigned something.

"But I came up with about a 32-page analysis of scheduling on what a 2-seed schedule looked like, a 3 seed, a 4 seed, a 5 seed and all the way down. We were able to put together a schedule that gave us a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed in the subsequent years."

Neighbors subsequently shared this thought process with Pac-12 coaches when he and McGuff took over at Washington. And now, both the Huskies and the rest of the conference have benefited; there are two Pac-12 teams here -- Oregon State will face UConn in the other semifinal -- and the league moved up a notch in terms of national respect with its regular season.

For Neighbors, this is gratifying and fulfilling. He and McGuff have remained close friends. McGuff -- whose Buckeyes fell in the Sweet 16 of the Sioux Falls Regional -- is among those whose paths have crossed with Neighbors and now are rooting for his squad to continue its magical run. Neighbors doesn't want to miss whatever is out there to enjoy.

"We are experiencing everything that the Final Four and the city of Indianapolis has to offer," Neighbors said. "We are looking forward to the games, but we're still soaking all this in."