Wiedmer: Tom Crean and John Calipari chummy

Wiedmer: Tom Crean and John Calipari chummy

March 23rd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA -- The most famous coach in Indiana University history made headlines of sorts earlier this week by uttering the word "Kentucky" for the first time in years.

Even as the Wildcats have twice been ranked No. 1 in the past three seasons, even as they reached last year's Final Four and are the favorites to win their first national championship since 1998 exactly 11 days from today in New Orleans, former IU coach Bob Knight stubbornly has refused to mention Kentucky by name, apparently certain that UK doesn't run a clean program.

Instead, he has called Kentucky, when forced, "the team from the SEC," and he refuses to work Wildcats games for ESPN.

Finally, on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" show a couple of days ago, he said "Kentucky" when asked to discuss tonight's Sweet 16 game between the Wildcats and Hoosiers inside the Georgia Dome.

Then again, maybe current IU coach Tom Crean's friendship with UK coach John Calipari is softening the General.

"There are very few relationships that can weather a lot of storms," Crean said 32 hours before his Hoosiers will go looking for their second win of the season against the Wildcats at about 9:50 tonight on CBS.

"If you've got a couple of people like that in your life, you're fortunate to have them. [John's] one of those people."

Said Calipari less than an hour later: "[Tommy's] a Basketball Benny. He's into basketball. He's not into a whole lot of other stuff. He's into his kids. And I've always had great respect for him because of that."

Knight versus Adolph Rupp this isn't.

But it is arguably the marquee matchup of the Sweet 16, if for no other reason than that Dec. 10 game inside IU's Assembly Hall, the one won 73-72 by the Hoosiers on a last-second 3-pointer by Christian Watford.

Perhaps you've seen it, especially since Calipari sort of joked, "I've seen it on a commercial about every 15 minutes."

Added UK freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who grew up in Indianapolis, "We see it a lot on ESPN commercials, phone commercials, a lot of things. We see it a lot."

But not too much for Watford, who said during Thursday afternoon's media gathering, "ESPN does a great job of showing it."

Both teams' players will tell you each team has changed a lot since then.

"I feel like we're playing with a lot more confidence than we were playing with back then," Watford said.

Countered Kentucky senior Darius Miller, who scored eight points in that first meeting with IU: "One thing we took from it is that we've got to play the whole 40 minutes. We had stretches where we kind of weren't playing with high intensity."

Both Calipari and Crean are known for displaying extremely high intensity during games, continually out of their seats, routinely screaming and pointing, grimacing and grinning, coaching until the final frantic seconds.

But while Cal has won at least 30 games six of the last seven seasons, Crean just recorded his first winning season at IU in his fourth season on the job.

"It's easy in this sport when things are going good," Calipari said. "When it's not, to keep things moving forward, which is what [Tommy's] done, is incredible."

But those aren't just Calipari's sentiments on an NCAA podium.

"In the last couple of years, as we've gone through this [rebuilding], when the phone rings it's been [Calipari] more than anybody else outside of my family," Crean said. "And it wasn't just, 'Hey, hang in there.' Anybody can tell you that. It was tangible things. 'Have you thought about this?' 'Are you looking at that?' Things that really make you think."

Just don't think Crean will be considering any of that at 9:50 tonight.

"Oh, it's not going to change anything, I promise you that," he said with a grin. "If John's trying to get it, I'm going to try to get it back. That's just the way it is."

Knight couldn't have said it better. Grin or no grin.