LEXINGTON – On Day 4 of the longest week of John Calipari’s basketball life, the Kentucky basketball coach tried yet again to insist that Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Louisville is just another basketball game.
Which is like telling a film buff that Gone With The Wind is just another movie.
“When you are playing at this stage of the season, a win or a loss doesn’t matter if it is against a school that is 12 miles from you or a thousand miles (what about, say, 75?), it really does not matter,” Calipari says. “We are playing a basketball team that has terrific players that play a style that is aggressive and fast. They are really good. It doesn’t matter how close they are to us, they are a very, very good team, and it is going to be a hard game for us.”
I’m not sure why Calipari has to try so hard to minimize the rivalry, to the point of denial. To suggest that the rivalry matters doesn’t necessarily suggest weakness. Most of us understand that as much as Kentucky and Louisville matter, it still rates behind faith, family, love, Bruce Springsteen, Spalding’s doughnuts - real life issues like that - on life’s scale of priorities.
On Day 4 of what Louisville coach Rick Pitino hopes is quite a victory parade, Pitino was saying on ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt Show that there are no hard feelings between he and Calipari.
Don’t know where all that talk comes from, Pitino says.
It’s easy for Pitino to take the high road this week (though, granted, he usually does) given that the pressure in this game is 90 percent on Calipari and Kentucky. Pitino has done arguably the best coaching job of his career to get his 30-9 Cardinals to the Final Four.
Pitino knows that in probably 40 minutes on the basketball court Saturday in New Orleans (6:09 p.m. tip), he and his Cards can erase three years of aggravation caused by Calipari and the Wildcats.
The only thing close to a bright side for UK, should the Wildcats lose this one, is it may push the Christian Laettner game to the back burner of Big Blue memories. Such would be the misery for Kentucky.
Ironically, Calipari has done, arguably, the second best coaching job of HIS career to get the 36-2 Wildcats to the Final Four (last year might have been even better, which is like saying Jane Seymour might be a tad prettier than Kathy Ireland), but Calipari isn’t going to get much credit because his players are so exceptional.
Coaches never get much credit for coaching great talent. That ignorance in perception ignores the astonishing skill it takes to sooth the egos of such talent into a unit like Calipari has done at Kentucky for three straight seasons.
Of course, if any current Wildcats ever get sensitive about sharing the load with their teammates, all Calipari has to do is throw out two names: Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe - who were both relatively second fiddle (though extremely talented) players for the Wildcats two years ago who became first round NBA Draft picks.
Calipari also largely does not get credit for the equally astonishing task of molding a group of high school superstars, most of whom probably didn’t play a lick of defense in high school, into one of college basketball’s best defensive teams.
But all that is, to use today’s most popular phrase, “what it is.”
Asked if there is someone he would like to lose to less than Rick Pitino, Caliari says: “You don’t want to lose to anybody. But someone is going to. You just want to be playing your best. The whole thing with my team is let’s play our best. Let’s prepare to play great, and we will deal with the results. Let’s not worry about anything else, let’s worry about us. I have on my wall, ‘Coach Your Team.’”
Calipari did say some nice things about Pitino and the Cardinals, and I do believe he’s sincere. Asked if this year’s run by the Cardinals should solidify Pitino’s candidacy for the Basketball Hall of Fame, Cal emphatically said yes.
“What he has done over his career and building programs and all the things he has done, yes, I think he should,” Calipari said of Pitino. “Eventually he will be, even if it’s not now. He deserves it now.”
Finally, after a long mid-week interview session with numerous media members, Calipari was asked “if the Louisville aspect of the game scares him.”
Us media types can be devilish in trying to re-phrase questions that have already been answered multiple times.
“I’ll say this again,” said Calipari, bless his heart. “Whether you win or lose, it does not matter if the school is 10 miles from you or 1,000 miles.”
Yes, it does. And if you want to find out, trying losing to Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday.