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Relationship between basketball programs, university on display at Tip-Off Luncheon

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UK President Eli Capilouto helped cut down the nets in Memorial Coliseum after the women's basketball team clinched the SEC title in March. Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK President Eli Capilouto helped cut down the nets in Memorial Coliseum after the women's basketball team clinched the SEC title in March. Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For the first time, Matthew Mitchell was invited to speak at the Wildcat Tip-Off Luncheon, an annual event that signals the fast-approaching start of the basketball season.

Customarily, Kentucky's men's basketball coach takes the stage to talk about his team and the state of the program in front of the school' alumni. For the past three years, John Calipari has shared the stage with UK President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, but not Mitchell, the women's basketball coach and Coach Cal's close friend.

Making his first appearance in front of a crowd of 862 in Louisville, Ky., Mitchell brought his characteristic self-deprecating wit. He got big laughs as he talked about his life working across the hallway from a man who is part national championship coach, part statewide celebrity.

"It's not a walk in the park being me, I can tell you that right now," Mitchell said. "We win the first (Southeastern Conference) championship in 30 years in women's basketball at Kentucky."

He was interrupted a loud round of applause, but Mitchell jumped right back into his five-minute speech.

"Yeah, yeah it's real exciting stuff," Mitchell said. "Look at this guy over here (Calipari), a national championship."

Beneath Mitchell's sarcastic tone was affection for his fellow coach, affection created in part by Calipari's willingness and desire to help in any way possible.

The process of building UK Hoops into a power on the women's basketball scene was well underway when Calipari arrived in 2009, but the two charismatic coaches have forged a strong friendship since then, one in which the two talk basketball regularly and support the other's team in any way they can.

It's no coincidence that two programs have succeeded wildly. At some schools, winning in the men's game and winning in the women's game are mutually exclusive, but not at Kentucky. Over the past three seasons, the men's team has reached two Final Fours and won a national title. In that same timeframe, the women have made it to the Elite Eight twice and won that SEC title Mitchell mentioned.

"Both teams go into this season preseason top 10 and in some cases top five (with) a chance to do something very few schools have ever done: have elite men's and women's teams at the same time," said Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio and kentuckysportsradio.com, the event's emcee.

Coach Cal is now even asking Mitchell to share in some of the notoriously lofty expectations of Kentucky fans, at least jokingly. Mitchell's team returns the majority of its roster from the group that won the conference last season and Calipari isn't afraid to pump it up. In fact, he brought the women's team up at breakfast earlier this week.

"One of the guys said, 'We need to win another national title in basketball. Coach, what do you think?' " Calipari said. "I said, 'I'm very confident we can do that. I think Matthew has a great shot to win it.' "

If and when Mitchell does match his national championship, there won't be anyone in Lexington happier than Calipari, but he doesn't want it to stop there. Whether it's hosting football recruits in the locker room before a game or tweeting about a big women's soccer win, Coach Cal is out for the success of the athletic department as a whole.

In fact, he knows all about Edrick Floreal, the new track and field and cross country head coach.

"We just hired the greatest track coach in the country from Stanford and (he) came to us," Calipari said. "Hopefully what we're doing is helping everybody do what they do and making their jobs easier."

As one of the most prominent public faces of the school, Calipari wants his influence to extend even to the classroom.

"My hope is that we are a small part of this great state and great university and that we're adding and helping not only people in the community, but with what Dr. Capilouto is trying to do, what Mitch is trying to do," Calipari said.

According to Capilouto, Calipari is doing just that.

This fall, UK welcomed the largest incoming freshman class in school history, one that included a record number of National Merit Semifinalists. During the process of recruiting that class, Capilouto called 75 undecided students to discuss what they liked about the University of Kentucky. There was one common thread throughout almost all his conversations.

"Nearly every person also told me that they wanted to be a part of big-time college sports," Capilouto said.

Of course, UK's sports wouldn't be big-time at all if not for fans like the ones Calipari, Mitchell and Capilouto were trying to entertain and inform on Wednesday. The symbiotic relationship between the school, its athletic department, its teams, its coaches and its student-athletes all starts with the Big Blue Nation.

"The support in this room is much appreciated by all of us," Calipari said. "Without your support, the scholarship money - which is great stuff - and what we're doing on this campus to take it all to another level (would not be possible)."

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