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Calipari, Crean put aside friendship in Sweet 16

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John Calipari is 2-1 at Kentucky in three career games against Tom Crean. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is 2-1 at Kentucky in three career games against Tom Crean. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA - This is the game John Calipari's players have been thinking about ever since Indiana handed Kentucky its first loss in buzzer-beating fashion.

At the same time, this is the game Calipari has been hoping to avoid ever since that Christian Watford shot found the bottom of the net.

His sense of dread does not stem from fear of Indiana - though he is effusive in his praise of the Hoosiers - but rather out of friendship. By the time the final horn sounds on Friday night, Calipari will either put an end to the season of one of his best friends - IU's Tom Crean - or have his own team's quest for a national championship cut short.

"If he goes down I'm going to be ecstatic but I'll feel bad for him, and I think the same (with him)," Calipari said.

In the immediate aftermath of Indiana's 73-72 win over UK on Dec. 10, Coach Cal, ever the soothsayer when it comes to his team's NCAA Tournament path, predicted in a conversation with Crean that a rematch would come. Lo and behold, the paths of top-seeded Kentucky (34-2) and No. 4 seed Indiana (27-8) will cross once more in the Sweet 16.

The pair has faced off three times since Crean arrived at Indiana in 2008 and Calipari at Kentucky a year later, but the relationship has stayed strong even though they've occupied the same post at schools that share a long and storied rivalry with one another. Crean has been in this business long enough to know that's rare.

"What I've learned is there's very few relationships that can weather a lot of storms," Crean said. "In this business, it gets so competitive that just sometimes you don't end up as close or you don't have the conversations with people that you used to have."

That's not a problem for Calipari and Crean, who established a relationship based on mutual respect.

Crean, seven years Calipari's junior, was just getting his coaching career started as an assistant at Alma College when he read a story about Calipari, then an assistant at Pittsburgh, in which he spelled out a piece of advice that Crean never let go.

"To make it as a head coach, you've got to be known for something," Crean said, paraphrasing Calipari's words from a magazine article. "And he said, 'Recruiting is what I have really wanted to be known for at that point.' "

Suffice to say, the approach has worked for Calipari, who quickly rose to become head coach at Massachusetts, then of the NBA's New Jersey Nets before returning to college at Memphis, once again a year after Crean arrived at Conference USA rival Marquette.

It was then that they became closer, and it really started with a loss Crean's Golden Eagles dealt to Cal's Tigers.

"We won a game, and I remember talking about how good of a coach I think he was and the things that we learned from him," Crean said. "And he thanked me later for giving him credit, he says, because he's not used to that in his career with other people that they have faced."

The two began to correspond regularly when Crean became an assistant at Pittsburgh, but the way he looked past Calipari's self-established reputation as a recruiter to recognize Coach Cal's ability as a teacher and motivator is what brought them together, largely because Calipari had so long felt a similar admiration for Crean.

"He's a basketball Benny," Calipari said. "He's into basketball. He's not into a whole lot of other stuff. He just loves it. He's into his kids. And I've always had great respect for him because of that."

With both now a part of college basketball royalty, they've only grown to relate to each other more in dealing with the pressures of coaching at a place like Kentucky or Indiana.

Calipari and Crean each took over their current jobs with their respective programs at relative low points. Coach Cal was able to quickly resurrect UK with three consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes, but helping IU rise from the ashes of probation has been a tougher task for Crean. Once a year - twice this season - Kentucky and Indiana may be rivals on the floor, but Calipari has been more concerned with being a part of his friend's support system.

"There's no question in the last couple years, as we've gone through this," Crean said, "that the phone has rang and I've answered it and it's been him more than really anybody else outside my family in this business. And I will always appreciate that because it wasn't just, 'Hey, hang in there.' Anybody can tell you that. It was tangible things. 'Have you thought about this? Are you looking at that?' Things that really make you think."

Calipari, much like what he has done with the concept of revenge going into this rematch with Indiana, downplayed what he has done to help.

"It's not what I've done for Tommy, it's what he's done for those kids in that program," Calipari said.

Crean has certainly done a great deal for his players, guiding Indiana to its first NCAA Tournament since 2008 and first Sweet 16 since the Hoosiers lost the 2002 national championship game. If the first game in Bloomington signaled Indiana's return to the national stage, a win in the Sweet 16 could mean something even more special, but this game is equally important for UK, which is something that couldn't be said four months ago.

The atmosphere on Friday night in the Georgia Dome figures to be electric. UK fans have long taken pride in overrunning Atlanta when the Big Blue plays SEC or NCAA Tournament games here, while Crean has taken to Twitter on more than one occasion this week to exhort Hoosier faithful to "not let this turn into CATLANTA."

For two hours or so, Crean and Calipari will set aside their friendship in pursuit of a berth in the Elite Eight. They'll be standing, yelling, clapping and jumping just feet away from each other on the sideline.

"It's not going to change anything tomorrow night at (9:45), I promise you that," Crean said. "The first edge he tries to get, I'm going to try to get it back. That's the way that it is."

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