It’s a rivalry game, but it’s also much more

By Brian Rickerd Published:

INDIANAPOLIS — Notes and quotes from Lucas Oil Stadium as the 26-10 Kentucky Wildcats and 31-5 Louisville Cardinals prepare to meet in the Midwest Region semifinals 9:45 tonight:

Both the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals say they are focusing on the significance of being in college basketball’s Sweet Sixteen rather than the in-state rivalry.

“People grieve for a year after the game,” UK coach John Calipari said, referring to the fans of the two schools. “(Or) people celebrate for a year after the game. And I have told the team: ‘We will not make this game bigger than it is. It’s an NCAA Tournament game. We gotta play a basketball game against a really good team.’ That’s my message. Just play.”

“It IS a rivalry game ... there’s no way around it,” said Louisville senior guard Russ Smith. “But at the end of the day, they (Wildcats) are right, it’s much bigger than a rivalry. It’s a Sweet Sixteen game. You just want to get on to the next round. That’s what’s most important. So preparing for Kentucky is no different. The goal is to get to the Elite Eight.”

To that end, Calipari — a staunch advocate of social media — has asked his players to avoid Twitter and anything about the game via television or print this week.

“It’s hard,” Calipari admitted. “Because social media is not going away. But (it’s) how you deal with it. I never see anything. My job is to get information out, pick people up, let the Big Blue Nation know how I’m feeling, do things — prayers and other things — to get out information. I see nothing coming back. Our people say, ‘You’ve got filters, you’ve got five of us that look at all your stuff so you don’t have to deal with it.’

“As a player, there’s stuff coming back that they may look at. I tell them, ‘Don’t look at it’. This week, I told them, ‘Don’t watch any TV. (Or) Watch the history channel, watch biography, watch the military channel, watch movies ... and don’t read anything.

Because it has no bearing on the game we’re about to play. Let’s just focus on that.’”

Calipari admitted that asking kids to follow his advice on social media is easier said than done.

“It’s hard for these guys,’’ he said. “If you and I were 18 and people are throwing stones at you, you’re going to see it, catch it. But it hasn’t tainted them. They are not mean and nasty. They’re a bunch of good kids that got rattled.”

Rattled, meaning a regular season for the Wildcats that was labeled by many as disappointing, though don’t tell that to Calipari.

“We didn’t struggle throughout the whole season,”  Calipari said when asked if his team had, in fact, struggled, which it, in fact, did.

“Every game we lost was like a two, three-point game. Then we went into the conference tournament, and we started really gelling because we accepted roles and did a better job.”

One of UK’s few bright sides in the regular season was a 73-66 win over Louisville Dec. 28 at Rupp Arena.

But that game seems like light years away now. The Cardinals were struggling to establish a niche with the loss of Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, while Calipari was trying to mold his youngest team to date.

“I think we were both struggling to kind of find an identity at that point,” said Louisville senior forward Luke Hancock, referring to the Cats and Cards. “There have been a lot of changes to our team since then. And I think it’s been for the better. Guys are filling into their roles.”

It may be as difficult to assess tonight’s meeting as it was way back on Dec. 28. Juco transfer Chris Jones has found a niche and stabilized the Louisville backcourt, while sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has developed into a Julius Randle-type beast on the inside.

And Calipari’s Wildcats appeared to have defined their roles the past two weeks, and, as a result, are playing more aggressively and with more confidence.

“I think everybody wants to say that experience is on our side, but they’re not young kids anymore,” Hancock said. “They’ve been through an entire year of battles. So it’s about who is going to make adjustments in the game ... us rebounding with them and them handling the pressure, and so on and so on.”

Injury report
UK freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said his hyper-extended elbow, suffered in the Wildcats’ 56-49, first-round win over Kansas State, is “getting better.”

“It’s still a little sore,” Andrew said. “I still ice it and stuff. But it’s definitely getting better.”

Reasons to stay
Smith could have probably left Louisville and been no worse than a second-round pick in the NBA Draft after last season, but he chose to return for his senior season. Smith said he’s thankful he made that decision.

“First and foremost, it’s given me an opportunity to enjoy college,” said Smith, who averages 18.1 points and 4.7 assists per game this season. “Second, I’m going to get my degree. That’s very important for myself and my family. And third, I get a chance to end my career on a great note. I had a chance to have senior night at the Yum Center, and things like that. Means a lot to me.”

Friends or foes?
One of the most amusing aspects of seeing Calipari and Pitino outside their hometown environment, so to speak, and out on a national stage like this one, is the questions both men invariably get about their relationship.

On Thursday, the question was presented to Calipari this way: “How would you characterize your relationship with Rick, and where do you think the perception comes that it’s sometimes a bit cold

“I would say we’re friends,” Calipari said. “We are in touch throughout the year, back and forth (you can take that description a lot of ways). He’d throw something at me. I’d throw something at him. Different things about our teams. I know he’s a great coach. He’s done it at different programs. And so the stuff about they’re at each other’s throats, it’s just not accurate.”

Pitino was asked the same question and said the operative word there is “perception.”

“I don’t care about perception because perception is not reality,” Pitino said. “We’re friends. We respect each other’s programs very much, and we’re friends in this business. And I certainly have great respect for what they’re accomplishing right now. But it really doesn’t matter what perception is because perception is not reality in this world.”

We report. You decide.

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