By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - John Calipari's frequent phone calls to his friend, University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, are primarily about basketball. They talk about officiating and Conference USA and how their respective teams are playing.
Memphis coach John Calipari shows his excitement during the closing moments of his team's 80-73 upset of Louisville on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
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But since Huggins had a heart attack Sept. 28, those calls have included inquiries from the Memphis head coach about whether Huggins is eating right, exercising regularly and getting enough rest.
"When you have the situation that came up with Bobby, you start putting things in a different light," Calipari said. "We've been friends for a long time. When it's all said and done and we're before the gates, are they going to ask me how many games did I win?
"You start to think differently. I was there when he was lying on that bed. I saw the shock marks on his chest."
Today, when UC and Memphis line up for tonight's 9 p.m. tip-off at The Pyramid before what may be the largest home crowd in the school's history, it's safe to say neither coach will be thinking about the pearly gates.
UC (16-8, 8-5 Conference USA) could use another win over a ranked opponent to solidify its 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. No. 24 Memphis (19-5, 10-3) is ranked for the first time since early last season and is headed for its first NCAA appearance since 1996.
Calipari hasn't beaten Huggins in five previous tries, including two games while Calipari was the head coach at UMass.
Memphis has lost six straight and eight of its last nine against UC.
"The bottom line is that Bob Huggins is a good man," Calipari said. "But he's competitive to the point where it's almost a compulsion. Probably any of the good ones in this profession are."
That would include Calipari, who has rebuilt Memphis' program in three years and views this as a barrier game: one more step toward reaching UC's status as seven-time conference champion.
"The hardest thing to do is to change the culture," Calipari said. "The minute the culture is changed, it starts feeding on itself. Players teach each other, and the climate and atmosphere is there."
That's why Calipari is so pleased by his team's response after it lost three games in a four-game span from Jan. 11-25. His players could have folded. Instead, they responded with an eight-game win streak.
Calipari blamed himself for the midseason letdown.
"If you accept mediocre play or mediocre effort, you have to take responsibility and the blame," Calipari said. "That's what I did. I accepted this level and now it's done."The Tigers have thrived largely because of their depth. They have seven players who average at least nine points a game and eight who average 20 minutes a game.
But 6-foot-9 senior center Chris Massie has been the driving force during this winning streak. He averages 16.7 points and 11.4 rebounds a game and has a streak of seven straight double-doubles.
"He's a load," Huggins said. "He's probably the best low-post player in the league."
Regardless of who wins tonight, Huggins and Calipari probably will shake hands at the end. They might even hug briefly at midcourt.
And the next time Calipari calls Huggins, he'll probably inquire about his pal's health. But tonight, the Memphis coach and his team will compete as if winning really does matter on judgment day.
After all, tonight's game will be telecast on ESPN as part of its Judgment Week programming.
"I've got great respect for (Huggins)," Calipari said. "But I want to beat his brains in."
RADIO: The University of Cincinnati and Clear Channel Communications have reached a deal that will keep broadcasts of UC football and basketball games on WLW-AM (700) radio for the next 10 years.
The agreement also includes the weekly shows for basketball coach Bob Huggins and football coach Rick Minter.
UC at No. 24 Memphis
Tipoff: 9 p.m., The Pyramid (20,004), Memphis, Tenn.
Records: UC 16-8 (8-5 Conference USA), Memphis 19-5 (10-3).
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
Series: UC leads 34-26.
Line: Memphis by 5.
Coach: Bob Huggins (348-108, 14th season; 516-180 overall).
Coach: John Calipari (67-29, third season; 260-100 overall).
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