When University of Kentucky athletics officials told coach John Calipari a few weeks ago that if his team did not make the NCAA Tournament UK could not host a NIT game, the coach said he “absolutely” still wanted to play.
Kentucky did stumble and now will open in the NIT tonight when it plays at Robert Morris because UK¿officials have a conflict hosting the NCAA Tournament games in Rupp Arena Thursday and Saturday that prevented UK¿from being able to host Robert Morris at Memorial Coliseum.
“We’re not above all the rest of the world. If this is what we deserve then we’re going to go play and see what we do,” said Calipari Monday on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. “But as far as playing at Robert Morris, no, but sometimes the committee says, ‘Hey, Cal is from Pittsburgh so it’ll be a good story.’ But you don’t know.
“But I will tell you I didn’t (have anything to do with it). If I did have something to do with it, I would have said let’s play Robert Morris at their place; it’ll be a great thing for them and hopefully it’ll be a terrific game.”
Calipari grew up near the Robert Morris campus on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
“I knew we would have to be on the road. I’m happy it’s Robert Morris, a place I have ties to, that I think have good people and a great program. We’re able to help that program by playing the game,” Calipari said. “Now, we’re going to have to go play. They’re a good basketball team. They’re tough. They shoot 3’s. They (make) nine 3’s a game. They’re in the top five or six in the country in both 3-point field-goal percentage and makes and steals. They’ve done a great job.”
Calipari knows while UK fans might not be excited about this game, the mood is different at Robert Morris for the ESPN game.
“I heard their students were lined up at 6 this morning for those tickets. I’ve had people calling me, ‘We can’t get tickets. Do you have tickets?’ I’ve got 10 tickets. I don’t have 100 tickets. So I think it’s going to be a tough ticket to get. If we were to do this, if Kentucky had to go somewhere to help a program, I would want it to be Robert Morris,” the Kentucky coach said.
Calipari knows UK fans are disappointed, but he tried to be realistic about his 21-11 team Monday that cost itself a chance to be back in the NCAA with a SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt Friday.
“Look, we’re coming off a national title. We lost six players. We had our best player (Nerlens Noel) injured. We were hoping to limp into the NCAA Tournament. We beat Florida and Missouri at the end of the year, but that wasn’t to be,” Calipari said. “If we beat Vanderbilt and we didn’t get in I would have been very upset and very vocal, but by losing to Vandy we put it in the committee’s hands and they made a choice.
“All those teams were about the same, and they chose not us. I’m not saying anything about it. We’re in this position because of us, because of fate with Nerlens, and now let’s see what we want to do. Do we want to play? Do we want to have pride? Do we want to go forward and learn? We’ve got a young team. Let’s use this as an experience. Or do we want to let go of the rope. We’re going to find out real quick on Tuesday.
“We’re going to find out where they are. I thought we played great (leading up to) Vandy. We had great practices and then we went out tentative. We went out — I don’t want to use the term scared; I don’t know the other terms I can use for it — but we didn’t have any fight, no fire, no pride. All of a sudden you’re looking at a game like, ‘What is going on here?’
“And so this team has done that a few times this year, but there are other times against Florida, Missouri, Mississippi on the road where they competed their brains out. Now we’re in that position, let’s compete and let’s see what happens.”
Only three SEC teams — Florida, Missouri and Mississippi — made the NCAA field.
“First of all, for some reason there was an impression that the SEC was down. We had nine teams in the top 100. The only league that had more than that in the BCS was the Big East, and they had more teams than us and they had 11 teams in the top 100,” Calipari said. “The second thing, like a team like ours, the three teams that are going to the NCAA Tournament, we finished 3-1 against those teams.
“Tennessee, the things that they did. You had a team like Arkansas that at home was as good as anybody in the country. I don’t know their road woes, why they were that way, but at home they were as good as anybody in the country. Even the teams at the top, Missouri, Mississippi — and I thought Mississippi was one of our best teams all year; I thought they played well — and then Florida, we could have easily had a couple more teams in, but we were on that edge and I think a lot of things that hurt us were, ‘Oh, the league is down,’ and everyone keeps saying it.
“That’s why I tell the coaches, you’ve got to brag about each other. We’ve got to set that straight. You can’t let it go. It’s not us against each other. It’s us against the rest of the leagues, and sometimes we get caught up in our own thing, and that’s why I say you’ve got to brag about everybody. Let everybody know how good these other teams are.”