Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Pitino, Calipari meet again across college court

Louisville-Memphis rematches '96 Finals coaches

Associated Press Writer

        MEMPHIS, Tenn. — They both gave the NBA a try, but Rick Pitino and John Calipari are now facing off again across a college basketball court.

        Pitino is head coach at Louisville, while Calipari leads Memphis.

        The Cardinals (12-6, 3-4 Conference USA) and the Tigers (17-4, 7-0), already rivals in C-USA, meet Wednesday night in Memphis.

        Neither team is ranked, though Pitino said Memphis has Top 20 talent and Calipari will undoubtedly spur his players on by telling them they aren't respected.

        “John did this at (the University of Massachusetts) very well,” Pitino said Tuesday in Louisville. '“The world is against us. ... We refuse to lose.' He turned them into caged lions every night out.”

        The two coaches last met on a college court in the 1996 Final Four when Pitino was with Kentucky and Calipari was at Massachusetts.

        Pitino came away the victor, and his team went on to win the NCAA championship.

        After spending eight years building a national contender at Massachusetts, Calipari moved to the NBA in 1996 to coach the New Jersey Nets.

        Pitino, who had previous pro experience with the New York Knicks, switched to the NBA once more the following year to coach the Boston Celtics.

        Now, they're both back coaching college teams and hoping to return to the top rungs of the NCAA.

        Calipari, in his second season at Memphis, has rejuvenated the team as well as its fans.

        He led the Tigers to a 21-15 record last year, the first time in five seasons Memphis won more than 20 games.

        Now, with seven straight victories in C-USA, the Tigers are off to their best league start since the 1983-84 season.

        Pitino, who has a 4-1 collegiate record against Calipari, is in his first season with the Cardinals.

        Like Calipari, he is a popular public speaker and fan favorite.

        Louisville beat Memphis 65-56 last year in former coach Denny Crum's last regular-season game. Crum had announced his retirement the day before the March 3 game.

        Former relationships mean little in Wednesday's game.

        Freshman Dajuan Wagner, a team leader for Memphis, is the son of Milt Wagner, a starter on Louisville's 1986 NCAA championship team.

        The elder Wagner is coordinator of basketball operations for Memphis.

        Pitino said the Tigers appear capable of handling whatever tempo they face.

        “If you want to play slow, they'll pound you inside and make you bleed to death,” he said. “And if you want to play fast, they've got the backcourt strength to get out in the wide open and play fast.”


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