By LARRY VAUGHT
INDIANAPOLIS — Ask almost anyone in Kentucky and they’ll agree that coaches John Calipari of Kentucky and Rick Pitino of Louisville are not friend and don’t get along well.
However, both coaches did their best to refute that perception here Thursday as their teams get set to meet in the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals Friday night. Both are on eight-game NCAA win streaks — Kentucky with six from its 2012 championship season and two this year and Louisville six from last year’s title season and two this year. Louisville’s last tourney loss was to UK in the 2012 Final Four.
“I don’t care about perception because perception is not reality. We’re friends. We respect each other’s programs very much and we’re friends in this business,” said Pitino. “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.”
Calipari said they were “friends” also and keep in “touch throughout the year back and forth” with each other, which probably surprises both UK and Louisville fans.
“He’d throw something at me, I’d throw something at him. Different things about our teams,” Calipari said. But, one, we’re getting older, both of us, and I think I’m not on his mind and he’s not on my mind, so to speak. We all got tough jobs, what we’re doing.
“I know that he’s a great coach. He’s done it at different programs. His kids play with great energy and they play with confidence, and it’s every year. And so the stuff about they’re at each other’s throats, it’s just not accurate. I’d be stunned if he thinks of me in a week, like my … both of us have tough jobs that we have to be engulfed in what we do.”
Pitino agreed coaching at rival schools could impact their relationship.
“I think it hurts a little bit because you all (in the media) bait and try to get certain answers out of us. And if John says, ‘I like a certain thing,’ some people think he’s taking a shot at me, vice versa. It’s not that we’ve talked about it together about that. He’s the total opposite with me with social media. And I know he believes in it and he knows I don’t believe in it. So we’re not taking sides on that. (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo doesn’t believe in it, maybe somebody else does.
“We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fans’ intensity, but we don’t personalize our battles. We understand what it’s all about. The best team’s going to win.”
Pitino told again how he first met Calipari when the current UK coach was a teenager at the Five-Star Camp and Pitino was a camp coach. He then defended the year Calipari has had (26-10) with a team that starts five freshmen.
“Two weeks ago I was asked by the Louisville media what do I think of the rumors of John going back to the pros. I said why would you say something like that? Because they lost a game,” Pitino said. “He’s one of the premier coaches in our game. Has always been. The thing that I remember most about John, because I’ve known him since he was 15, is he always didn’t have one‑and‑dones. He had a team at Massachusetts, and I knew where he took them.
“And he had the least amount of talent on the court when he went out there. And he didn’t play an easy schedule. He had to take a lot of people on to get Massachusetts in the limelight. I’ve seen all stages of John’s career.
“And so it doesn’t surprise me that they’re playing well at this time. It was a great game the other night by both teams. I know how good Wichita (State) is. Now they’re a much better offensive time this year than last year, much better defensive team. Wichita is a great basketball team. Kentucky beat a great basketball team (to advance).”
Because Pitino coached at Kentucky — and won a national title — before coming to Louisville and winning another title, he knows the significance this game has for the state.
“We’ve gotten used to the noise, so we don’t … we understand what’s at stake,” Pitino said. “I’ve said it many times. I’ve been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice. Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play (here).”