INDIANAPOLIS -- The two fan bases in the frenzied and fractured college basketball state of Kentucky spend their leisure time poking fun at each other, often with language more colorful than the bluegrass. The players on each team are quite respectful, but to be honest -- they want to beat the hell out of each other.
Have we left anyone out? Oh, yes. How about the coaches? How do Rick Pitino and John Calipari truly feel about each other after all these years coaching in a state that's arguably ahead of North Carolina when it comes to feuding basketball powerhouse programs?
When one coaches at Louisville, winner of three national titles, and the other at Kentucky, winner of eight national titles, does that make it tough if not impossible to have a close relationship?
"Yes, it does," said Pitino.
He clarified: "People want to get certain answers out of us. If John says I like a certain thing, some people think he's taking a shot at me or vice-versa and it's really not. We've talked about that. We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fan's intensity. But we don't personalize our battles."
Basically, if there's any friction between Pitino and Calipari (which they say there isn't even if the scuttlebutt says there is), it's only from the perception and misunderstanding caused by a basketball rivalry. Not because of anything genuine. Not because of anything particular that happened.
Calipari: "That stuff about us being at each other's throat is not accurate."
Pitino: "We respect each other's programs."
Sometimes Calipari is asked about Louisville and Pitino, and he'll say something meant to be complimentary, and it gets lost in translation. Sometimes Pitino might rave about the top teams and coaches in the country and forget to mention or talk up Calipari and Kentucky, in an honest mistake. It happens. And when it does, one coach might take it as a slight or read far too much into what the other said. Mix in a few message boards from the fan bases and the media looking for a salacious angle and it's the perfect brew for a feud, real or imagined.
There was a moment Thursday afternoon, between team practices at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of this weekend's Midwest Regional finals, where each coach's path intersected in the bowels of the building. The chance meeting was cordial and they spoke softly for a few minutes before going their separate ways. That little snippet perhaps summed up the relationship between two of the country's great coaches.
They speak, and then they go their separate ways.
"I'm not on his mind and he's not on mine," said Calipari, in a moment of candor. "We both have tough jobs that we're engulfed in, that we're too busy with."
They have too many things in common and that's why their relationship can only be so tight, despite Pitino saying, "I've known John since he was 15 years old." They chase the same recruits. They have healthy egos. They want to win national championships. They want to beat each other, and will have another chance Friday. And they work in Kentucky, which really is the whole point here.
Did Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith break bread often? How about Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier, once upon a time? And more to the point, how about Denny Crum and Joe B. Hall? No, certain situations just aren't conducive to healthy relationships, and this is one of them.
At first, this one was supposed to break the mold. The two go way back, to Five-Star Camp decades ago where Pitino worked as a young up-and-comer in the business and Cal was a camper and later a counselor looking for a mentor. Pitino took note of how energetic Cal was then (and still is now). Pitino did so much for Cal early on, showing him the ropes, talking him up for jobs, that Cal was largely viewed as a Pitino creation, a carbon copy, an understudy. You can see why. They both had success in their first taste of big-time college basketball. Both chased the dollars and the prestige of the NBA, with mixed results. Both returned to the college game somewhat tarnished -- and then won titles and became giants.
Did Cal, after he certified himself as an ace recruiter and coach, begin to bristle at suggestions his career wouldn't have been possible without Pitino's guiding hand and glowing recommendation? That's what the mill says. And perhaps, to a degree, it's true. Ego often gets in the way and when two sides don't spend much time doing lunch, misunderstandings tend to happen.
It doesn't help that the Cardinals and Wildcats are both good and constantly ranked in the top 10 and lately, realistic title contenders. They played in the Final Four just two years ago. It doesn't help that they won the last two national titles and will play Friday in a football stadium expected to draw 40,000 fans for a chance at another title.
Pitino and Cal are doing one of their better coaching jobs this season. Both teams looked somewhat lost until lately. Louisville had faltered a bit after winning it all last year, while Kentucky, loaded with freshmen once again, didn't rule the SEC. And then the conference tournaments began, followed by the NCAA tourney, and both teams found their stride in the nick of time.
"Our kids had to hear how bad they were, how selfish they were, and had to deal with that," Cal said. "But we really didn't struggle the whole season. What happened was we found ourselves. We accepted roles. A lot of this is on me. We hadn't defined roles for them because we hadn't figured it out. I'm just happy we didn't run out of runway before we figured it out."
On the difficult task of following up a championship year, Pitino said: "It's the hardest thing a team can do. I'm proud of our guys."
And now they're within a few heartbeats of returning to the Final Four and, as luck would have it, must go through the other to get there. Can the psyche of the state survive whatever happens on Friday?
"People grieve for a year after the game," said Calipari, about the typical aftermath of a Kentucky-Louisville contest. "And people celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried not to make it bigger than it is. It's one game. Shaddup."
Kentucky is once again loaded with one-and-dones, the method that Calipari is unapologetic about. He could lose three or four underclassmen to the NBA, as he does almost every year. The Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew), who run the backcourt, are beginning to hit their stride after an inconsistent few months. Julius Randle looks to be a top six or seven pick in the NBA draft.
By comparison, Louisville doesn't see as many early leaks to the pros. The Cardinals once again will offer up Russ Smith, one of the most talented (if not always the most disciplined) college point guards in the country, who decided to return to campus for his senior year because, as he said, "I needed it for myself."
It should be intense and hard-fought and aggressively-played. And we're talking about the battle between the coaches, whose only real contact happens when they shake hands before and after games.
"We're friends," insisted Pitino.
Really? Friends? As in you-can-call-me-at 3 a.m.-friends? Probably not. What's the truth? They're friend-ly. There's a difference. And when you coach rival teams in the state of Kentucky, that's about all you can be.