LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—John Calipari doesn’t mind a good feud.
This is the same coach who recalls his infamous postgame run-in with Temple’s John Chaney 16 years ago—in which Chaney challenged Calipari to a fight in front of reporters—with a smile.
Yet the Kentucky coach insists there will be no such fireworks on Saturday when he and Louisville coach Rick Pitino stand across the scorer’s table from each other in finely tailored suits as the third-ranked Wildcats (14-0) host the Cardinals (10-3) at Rupp Arena.
Are the longtime acquaintances friends? Not exactly. But don’t call them enemies.
“I respect him,” Calipari said of Pitino. “We’ve gone nose to nose many times in the NBA and in college and they were all good games. They were all wars and I would expect this is going to be the same.”
The games have often gone to Pitino—he’s twice beaten Calipari-led teams in the NCAA tournament—but this time things are different.
For the first time it’s Calipari, not Pitino, who is coaching the overwhelming favorite. It’s Calipari, not Pitino, who has the roster filled with McDonald’s All-Americans.
And it’s Pitino, not Calipari, who will be viewed as the villain.
Pitino has never really been embraced by the Wildcat faithful since abruptly leaving the program he led to a national championship and three Final Fours in the 1990s for an ill-fated run coaching the Boston Celtics.
Returning to the college game at hated Louisville didn’t exactly help matters. Neither did Pitino’s tumultuous summer in which he admitted to having an affair with a woman later accused of trying to extort him for millions.
While Pitino says he only wants to “talk about basketball,” his players are only too aware of the reception their coach will receive when Pitino’s name is introduced over the loudspeaker.
“It’s like walking into hell,” said senior guard Edgar Sosa.
Calipari has implored Kentucky fans to treat Pitino with respect, asking them to leave any disparaging signs at home. Yet he knows he can only do so much.
“I will not look in the seats, I never do,” Calipari said. “At that point I’m coaching my team. I’m not the Rupp police. I haven’t been here long enough to maybe move enough people but I’ve made my case and that’s it.”
Even if the signs do show up, don’t expect them to get a rise out of Pitino or the Cardinals.
Though Pitino allows the crowd at Rupp can be “overpowering” at times, he knows his team has the one thing the freshman-laden Wildcats do not: experience in hostile environments.
Louisville won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles a year ago, clinching the regular season crown on the road at West Virginia.
The raucous atmosphere like the one awaiting them Saturday is nothing new for seniors like Sosa and Jerry Smith, who keyed an emphatic Louisville win at Rupp two seasons ago.
“I think we play better like that, I love it,” Smith said. “When you have so much negativity going against you, you have no choice but to respond. You have nothing to lose.”
Smith wore his Big East championship ring while talking to reporters on Friday. The senior co-captain just shook his head when asked if the ring was a reminder to the Wildcats that only one team in the state has been to the last two NCAA tournament regional finals, and it’s not Kentucky.
“No, nothing like that,” he said.
While the Wildcats are off to the best start in 32 years behind the play of superstar guard John Wall—who Pitino called the best freshman he’s maybe ever seen—the Cardinals stumbled in early December losing home games to Charlotte and Western Carolina.
They’ve ripped off five straight thanks to a renewed commitment to the press, though Pitino says Wall’s phenomenal speed makes the Wildcats nearly “unpressable.”
“They haven’t been pressed yet and there’s probably a smart reason for that,” Pitino said.
That doesn’t mean he’s not going to try. And Calipari knows it’s coming.
“He knows how I coach and I know how he coaches, there are no surprises,” Calipari said.
It’s been that way since Pitino helped Massachusetts come up with enough money to hire Calipari as head coach back in 1988.
Yet it wasn’t exactly the start of a beautiful friendship.
They battled in the ’90s when Calipari was at UMass and Pitino was at Kentucky and the rivalry began again last decade when Memphis and Louisville took turns dominating Conference USA.
They’ve only crossed paths a couple of times since Calipari took over at Kentucky last April. The encounters were polite. Just like always.
“We’ve been on two rival schools and competed and we’ve never had moments where we get angry, never had a John Chaney, that type (of thing),” Pitino said. “We’ve never had it.”
Calipari doesn’t expect it come to that on Saturday, though he is quick to point out UMass did win the game in which he and Chaney had their famous showdown.
“If you’re telling me that … we’re going to win and that happens, I’m OK,” he said with a laugh.