In NCAA tournament, Cornell's Big Red and Kentucky's 'Blue Mist' are miles apart on the spectrum

The road to Indianapolis is paved with dramatic snapshots.
By John Feinstein
Thursday, March 25, 2010


Good vs. Evil.

David vs. Goliath.

Pointy-heads vs. Pros.

Pick a cliche and you can easily describe Thursday night's East Region semifinal between Kentucky and Cornell.

Kentucky is a seven-time national champion, the top seed in the East and the favorite to win the national championship 11 days from now in Indianapolis. Cornell is the No. 12 seed in the region, is favored to have the highest SAT scores of any team still playing and won its first two games ever in NCAA tournament play last weekend.

"The Sweet 16, it's a dream come true for all of us," Cornell Coach Steve Donahue said Wednesday afternoon. "We want to keep the dream alive for as long as we possibly can."

"At Kentucky, you're expected to win every game you play," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "By 20."

Which is why it wasn't at all surprising when three starters who preceded Calipari in the interview room all gave the same answer when asked what they wanted to do after college.

"Play basketball."

"Keep playing basketball for as long as I can."

"Me, too. I love to play."

Those answers came from Cornell seniors Jeff Foote, Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman. You see, the Ivy League kids love to play the game, too. One doesn't have to be a one-and-done, sure-fire lottery pick to want to keep playing ball after college.

That's not to say the Cornell kids aren't a little bit scary smart. When an especially obnoxious radio reporter launched into a long-winded question that boiled down to, "Isn't this smart guys versus athletic guys?" (welcome to journalistic cliches 101) Wittman smiled and said, "No doubt our passion buckets will be overflowing tomorrow night," causing Foote to almost fall off his chair laughing.

That said, there is no doubting the glaring contrasts between the two programs. Cornell has no media guide. Kentucky has three, including a glossy, full-color, 208-page (the maximum allowed by NCAA rules) recruiting brochure that poses as a media guide. No one asked Kentucky's players on Wednesday what they hope to do after college because everyone knows what they hope to do after college.

When someone asked Dale if the press conferences at the Sweet 16 were different than the press conferences the Cornell players are used to, he shrugged and said, "We don't usually have press conferences."

These teams aren't from different conferences; they're from different planets. When Mark Coury, one of Cornell's backup forwards, walked out of the locker room Wednesday, one might have thought that President Obama had made a surprise appearance judging by the cameras, notebooks and tape recorders that surrounded him before he had taken even a half-step.

Coury averaged 2.5 points per game this season. But he played at Kentucky for two years as a walk-on, even starting 29 games two seasons ago during the dark days of Billy Gillispie's brief coaching tenure.

But Calipari has restored order in the Bluegrass. The Wildcats do win by 20 points most nights (actually they won their first two tournament games by 29 and 30) and they need only four more wins to have what Kentucky fans consider a successful season. Calipari sounds like a candidate for office when he talks dreamily about the "Blue Mist" that follows his team everywhere and the connection between his team and its fans.

Of course, Calipari brings some baggage with him as everyone connected to college basketball -- including most notably Bob Knight -- has noted since the day he was hired last spring for about a gazillion dollars a year. (Okay, it was $32 million over eight years, if you are scoring at home).

As successful as he has been at Massachusetts and Memphis, neither of his Final Four appearances at those two schools -- U-Mass. in 1996; Memphis in 2008 -- exist in the NCAA record book.

Of course, no one at Kentucky cares about Calipari's past, other than his consistent ability to recruit great players and win games, any more than they care about the collective grade-point average of Cornell's starters or Wittman's use of the term "passion buckets."

If Cornell were to pull off one of the great upsets in NCAA tournament history on Thursday night, then someone at Kentucky might care about Calipari's past. All of which brings to mind a comment made years ago by Calipari's pal Knight when he was coaching at Indiana: "I know as long as I win I'll be considered eccentric by our fans. If I ever start to lose, I'll be considered an embarrassment."

Calipari is 34-2 this season. At the moment, he is lovably eccentric and if a rule got broken here and there in the past, well, he was never actually found guilty by the NCAA, was he?

One thing Calipari can clearly do is coach up his players -- on and off the court. No one from Kentucky was going to take any bait on the pros vs. pointy heads issue, although DeMarcus Cousins did admit in the packed Kentucky locker room that the UK players knew people were trying to make this game into exactly that.

Donahue also understands the difference between the two teams. While Calipari is easily the most famous person in his state, treated a little bit like Elvis everywhere he goes, Donahue had a new experience this week after his team came home from its two wins in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I was walking down the street and a woman in her car rolled down her window and said, 'I love you!' " he said. "I thought that was pretty cool."

It's all pretty cool right now for Donahue and his players. They're on a joyride.

Not Calipari and the Kentucky players. They're on a business trip.

That's not a cliche. It's a fact.

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