ATLANTA – John Calipari took a shot at Duke on national TV, then claimed amnesia.
If you take the shot, own the shot.
When ESPN's Andy Katz stuck a microphone in the Kentucky coach's face at halftime of his team's excellent Champions Classic game against Duke, this was the money quote from Cal: "They're flopping all over the place. In the NBA, they'd all be suspended."
Calipari gave voice to what America has been saying for decades now: that Duke players can fall down like Hollywood stunt doubles when the other team drives to the basket. From Tommy Amaker to Bobby Hurley to Steve Wojciechowski to Shane Battier to Jon Scheyer (see: Gordon Hayward drive, 2010 national title game), Mike Krzyzewski's players have drawn a whole lot of charges over the decades.
Many of them have been legit charges, earned with hustling help defense and a willingness to give up their bodies for the cause. And many have been Academy Award efforts by the Blue Devils.
But coming unprompted at halftime from an opposing coach, this was a startling statement – one that immediately got major run on Twitter and all over the Internet. When one national championship coach calls out another, that's news. And it was especially interesting coming from a coach who works the refs as relentlessly as anyone in the game, and who has gotten more than a few calls in his favor over the years – particularly the last three seasons at Kentucky.
But after years of fighting uphill at Massachusetts and Memphis, Calipari still tends to view Hoopsworld through the prism of the outsider battling against the Establishment. The problem with that: he's not at Massachusetts or Memphis, he's at Kentucky. And Kentucky is the Establishment right now, enjoying all the perks that come with that position – an ESPN all-access series, massive recruiting clout and, yes, the occasional favorable whistle.
Naturally, Calipari was asked about the flopping comment following the Blue Devils' tenacious, 75-68 victory. His response was a backpedal that would make Deion Sanders jealous.
"I did?" Calipari said. "I don't even remember. What did I say?"
As the reporter attempted to refresh Cal's suddenly faulty memory, the coach cut him off.
"It was a joke," he said. "Come on, you guys can take a joke at Duke. Geez."
It's reasonable to wonder how the pugnacious Calipari would have taken the joke, if the joke were on him. And it might have been better received if he had stood behind the comment with some conviction. At least he didn't claim to be quoted out of context.
Krzyzewski, for his part, could afford a winner's smile when asked about the flopping comment.
"I mean, he has a right to say whatever he wants," K said. "I thought we took some amazing charges and probably – I thought we had taken a couple more. There's a difference between a charge and a flop. A flop means you don't take any contact. I would hope that anybody that watches the game would say our kids really played outstanding defense and were there to take charges. And we don't make any money, so we can't be fined."
To his right, Duke senior Seth Curry leaned back and smiled. It certainly wasn't the first time the Blue Devils had heard this sort of thing.
Later, Krzyzewski was asked about Kentucky's missing point guard, North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow, who did not play while recovering from the flu. His response: "John wants to talk about our defense, I'll let him talk about his team, not me."
So we have a feisty renewal of the most heated non-rivalry in college basketball. Ever since Christian Laettner hit That Shot in the East Regional final in 1992, Duke and Kentucky have been linked to a feverish degree.
They've only played twice since then – the Wildcats exacting revenge in a spectacular 1998 regional final, and the Blue Devils winning a regular-season game in 2001. But plenty of Big Blue fans have never forgiven or forgotten the Laettner shot, so deeply did it sear their souls. Those too young to remember it have had the anguish handed down via oral history, videotape and annual March Madness reminders.
Now there is a new chapter to the non-rivalry, and some fresh rhetoric to stoke the fires until the next meeting. Maybe it will come in March, with more on the line, because both these talented and tenacious teams figure to be in the national forefront all season.
If there is a March rematch, heaven help the officials. Every block-charge call will be reviewed and debated like the Zapruder Film.
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