NCAA BK

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 - 9:45 PM ET
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Indiana-Kentucky Preview

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ATLANTA (AP)

At Kentucky, the bar is set a lot higher than most places.

National championship or bust.

''It's Kentucky,'' coach John Calipari said. ''Do you expect anything else?''

On Friday night, the Wildcats will be matched against one of the few college basketball programs that can give them a run for passion and tradition. If Kentucky brings up Adolph Rupp, Indiana can quickly counter with Bob Knight. Few fans get as worked up about the game as those in the Bluegrass State - unless you happen be among those hoops-crazy Hoosiers.

''There's always been a special aura around and about Indiana to me,'' said coach Tom Crean, ''and I would say the same thing about Kentucky.''

With a dozen national titles between them (seven for the Wildcats, five for Indiana), this is about as good as it gets without actually being at the Final Four. Throw in some enticing subplots - from Crean leading a remarkable turnaround in Bloomington after the storied program fell on hard times, to Calipari positioning Kentucky for another title run with his latest one-and-likely-done dream team - and there's no doubt the Georgia Dome will be rockin' for this South Regional semifinal.

But this is merely a prelude for the top-seeded Wildcats (34-2). Unless they are cutting down the nets in New Orleans, this season will be judged a failure.

''You're supposed to win every game by 25,'' Calipari said. ''If you're winning by 15, what's the issue? What's going on with the program? If you lose, God forbid, lose one, how can we lose this game?''

Fourth-seeded Indiana (27-8) handed the Wildcats one of their defeats, a buzzer-beating 73-72 victory a couple of weeks before Christmas. While that was a mere speed bump for Kentucky on the way to finishing No. 1 in the rankings, the thrilling win was a huge boost to Indiana's self-esteem.

Yep, the Hoosiers are back.

''I feel like we're playing with a lot more confidence than we were playing with back then,'' said junior forward Christian Watford, who hit the winning 3-pointer against the Wildcats, a shot that has been replayed over and over on both sides of the Ohio River.

Back in 2002, Indiana made a surprising run to the national championship game, held in the same mammoth building where the Hoosiers face the Wildcats.

But that was a rare blip of success in the post-Knight era. Mike Davis didn't last. Kelvin Sampson was forced out by allegations of serious NCAA violations. Taking over a program in tatters, Cream's first team went 6-25 and managed only one win in the Big Ten.

Over the last two seasons, it was still difficult to detect even a blip of light at the end of the tunnel. The Hoosiers went a combined 22-41 overall, just 7-29 in conference play.

''When you're coming off what we've dealt with the last couple of years, you have no choice but to treat every game as the most important game,'' Crean said. ''If you do that enough, it leads to moments like this.''

Kentucky won 24 straight before losing to Vanderbilt in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament. In a way, that might've helped the Wildcats, removing the burden of a winning streak before they headed off to the NCAAs. They barely broke a sweat in their first two games.

''Their team is clicking on all cylinders,'' Crean said.

The Hoosiers coach is most impressed by the way Calipari - for the third year in a row - has molded a collection of high school stars into a powerhouse college team.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague could very well be the latest batch of Kentucky blue-chippers to stop off in Lexington for only a year on their way to the NBA. But they hardly come across as a bunch of kids worried about individual stats at the expense of the team's success.

Three players have taken more shots than Davis, the team's top scorer and defensive stopper. Kidd-Gilchrist ranks fifth on the team in field-goal attempts.

Darius Miller, one of only two seniors on the Kentucky roster, said this group seems to have meshed better than Calipari's first two Kentucky teams.

''Everybody gets along. We really care about each other,'' Miller said. ''I think the main point is we have a lot of fun with everything we do. You see us laughing and smiling on the court, clapping, and you see all the emotion we leave on the court.''

Crean has his own super freshman, 6-foot-11 Cody Zeller. He leads the Hoosiers in scoring (15.5 points a game) and rebounding (6.5), giving Indiana an offensive weapon with at least a fighting chance against Davis.

Davis' presence in the lane allows the Wildcats to cheat on the perimeter, because they know they've got a last line of defense who led the nation in blocked shots (4.6 a game).

During that December meeting, Indiana managed to get Davis in foul trouble and limit him to 24 minutes - a strategy the Hoosiers would certainly like to replicate in the rematch. But the freshman has played with much more discipline since then, called for no more than three fouls in any game.

That's what Calipari likes to see.

''It's simple what I tell these guys,'' he said. ''It's not football. It is not a touchdown (if they score). We'll score seven seconds later. If you break down, let 'em score. Don't foul. I just say it over and over.''

While the border rivals meet regularly during the regular season, this will be the first time since 1983 - and only the fourth time overall - that they've faced off in the NCAA tournament.

That only adds to the hype.

''There's a lot of household names that were coaches, players,'' Crean said. ''A lot of household-name teams, where people can remember a year and remember a team, and they can remember a lot of things about them.''

There's only one way Kentucky fans want to remember its team.

Champions.

''I love our fans,'' Calipari said. ''They're crazy. They watch the game tapes three times. I don't watch the game tapes three times. But that's coaching and playing in Kentucky. It's a little different.''

---

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Tagged: Indiana, Kentucky, Texas Tech, Mike Davis

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