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Coach Cal looking to make most of NIT trip

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John Calipari will return to his hometown of Moon Township, Pa., for UK's first round NIT game vs. Robert Morris. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will return to his hometown of Moon Township, Pa., for UK's first round NIT game vs. Robert Morris. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the fact that the NIT is not where Kentucky wanted to be on Selection Sunday. The Wildcats, of course, wanted to be defending their national championship in the NCAA Tournament this March.

But after the Cats learned that won't be happened, they had to move on. For John Calipari, that means looking to the future.

"I'm really disappointed we didn't make the NCAA Tournament but we are going to use this time to make us better," Calipari said in a tweet.

The good news is that Coach Cal and the Cats will be able to improve by playing actual games.

Just hours after UK found out it would not play in the Big Dance, the Cats were tabbed as the top overall seed in the NIT. There, they will face Robert Morris at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday on ESPN. UK last played in the NIT in 2009 - the season before Coach Cal arrived in Lexington - and the Cats won two games and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing at Notre Dame.

That season, UK played its first-round game in Memorial Coliseum and was positioned to host once again in 2013 as a No. 1 seed. However, due to the fact NCAA Tournament second- and third-round games are being played in Rupp Arena this week, UK was unable to do so.

"We did not place a bid to host the first round of the NIT due to limited staff availability to properly host a game at Memorial Coliseum," Executive Associate Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy said in a statement. "Because the University of Kentucky is hosting the NCAA second- and third-round games at Rupp Arena on March 21 and 23, the facility was not available for a first-round NIT game."

Should UK advance past Robert Morris, the Cats would host either Providence or Charlotte in the second round in Rupp as well as a potential quarterfinal.

Though the Cats won't be playing at home, the NIT first round will be a homecoming for Coach Cal. Calipari's home town is Moon Township, Pa., which happens to be the same Pittsburgh suburb where Robert Morris is located.

In fact, the Charles L. Sewall Center, the 3,056-seat arena where Robert Morris plays its home games, is barely a mile drive down University Boulevard from Moon Area High School, Coach Cal's alma mater. Adding another piece of interesting backstory, Calipari's grandmother worked in the Robert Morris cafeteria.

As proud as locals may be of their native son, Robert Morris won't be looking to give him too friendly a welcome. The Colonials (23-10) received an NIT bid after winning the Northeastern Conference regular-season title but falling short of the NEC's automatic bid by losing to Mount St. Mary's in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

"I feel like Rocky from Rocky I, who just got his shot at the champion to fight against the defending national champion in our home city," said third-year head coach Andrew Toole in joining ESPNU's NIT Selection Show.

Robert Morris, however, has more prizefighting experience than Rocky Balboa did when he got his shot at heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.

The Colonials have won 15 of 18 games and boast a victory over co-Mid-Atlantic Conference champion Ohio. They also lost by just two on the road against Xavier and held a second-half lead at Arkansas before falling, 79-74.

"We knew we were going to play a team like Kentucky or one of the teams that was on the bubble and hopefully we'll prepare ourselves mentally to go and play a great game against a great team," Toole said.

UK has faced Robert Morris just once in school history, winning 92-67 on Dec. 30, 1993 in Rupp.

Whoever the Cats' opponent turned out to be, Coach Cal's priorities for the NIT were going to remain the same. He wants to win games even though the tournament in which he's coaching doesn't have all the right letters, but the simple fact that he gets to keep coaching his team is what matters.

"Even now, I'm going to coach these guys, try to make them better (and) give everything I can to make sure we control our destiny in the future," Calipari said.

Calipari, like the Big Blue Nation, doesn't want to ever be on the NCAA Tournament bubble again. The path to making that happen starts now.

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2 Comments

Sure it's disappointing not making the NCAA tourney, but only 2 teams still playing this year will finish on a winning streak. Let's make one of them Big Blue.
Good Luck fellows - play hard & make BBN proud!

My son graduates from UK law school in May. His great Grandmother babysat coach Cal and my Brother in law graduated from Moon High School with him

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  • Derek Underwood: My son graduates from UK law school in May. His great Grandmother babysat coach Cal and my Brother in law read more
  • Joe B: Sure it's disappointing not making the NCAA tourney, but only 2 teams still playing this year will finish on a read more