Calipari faces ultimate test

The most tense, difficult week of John Calipari’s coaching career began with a question about Anthony Davis’ knee, another about his net-cutting technique and a third about the one-and-done recruiting approach that has characterized his three seasons at Kentucky.

But something so much bigger than all that was hanging over Calipari inside an interview room at the Georgia Dome last night, something even the greatest salesman in sports is powerless to control.

Calipari is going back to his fourth Final Four this week and he’s bringing a team that should win it all; a team that pounded Baylor yesterday in the South Regional final, 82-70, and looked every bit the part of a national champion.

But the journey to get there will include one more crucible that Calipari couldn’t have prepared for, couldn’t have wanted. To play for a national championship next Monday night, Kentucky will have to beat Louisville, Calipari will have to beat Rick Pitino, and the only guarantee now is that all hell is about to break loose in the Bluegrass State.

Duke and North Carolina have never met in a Final Four. Neither have Indiana and Purdue, nor Kansas and Missouri, nor Syracuse and Georgetown. But on Saturday, Louisville and Kentucky — two schools separated by roughly 80 miles, with fan bases that spend all year feuding and coaches who can’t stand each other — will play for a spot in the national championship game in the New Orleans.

Think there might be some tension in the Commonwealth this week?

“It is in our state. They’re a great program. We’re in two different leagues,” Calipari said, once someone finally got around to asking him the obvious. “The city of Louisville drives our state. The University of Louisville drives that city. So it’s a very important thing for our state, and it’s important that school does well. We’re so close. But they have a great program.

“I’m going to enjoy this. I’m not worried about who we’re playing. I’m just happy we’re still playing.”

Nice try, Cal.

Though he would never acknowledge it publicly, Calipari understands this is a pass-fail year. He’s got the future NBA No. 1 overall draft pick in Anthony Davis and probably the No. 2 pick in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His entire rotation, save perhaps freshman Kyle Wiltjer, will enter the draft in the next couple weeks and he’ll start all over again next fall with another group of elite one-and-doners.

As long as Calipari coaches, he’ll never have a bad team. But this is THE team, and he knows it. He’s known it, in fact, from the moment he signed this recruiting class built around a once-a-decade talent like Davis.

And if Louisville ends it — if Pitino ends it — it would be the most devastating moment of his coaching career.

For a guy who watched a desperation 3-pointer by Mario Chalmers rip away a national championship from his Memphis team four years ago, that’s saying something. The stakes for this Kentucky team were high no matter what. When Louisville became an unlikely entrant to the Final Four, they got exponentially higher.

“They’re already freaking out,” said Matt Jones, operator of the popular Kentucky fan site and host of a daily radio show in Louisville.

This is the biggest of big deals in the state of Kentucky, a matchup so combustible it would be smart to keep all flammable materials away. Given that these two fan bases are likely to be soaked in bourbon by tip-off, that’s probably asking too much. No matter how good or bad the two teams are, it’s a weeklong circus when these two teams play annually in the regular season. This is a different, and perhaps unpredictable, level of angst.

What kind of impact this will have on the players — only a couple of whom on either side are from the state of Kentucky — is hard to quantify. Unless Calipari can put his players in a cryogenic chamber for the next six days, the intensity around them will be searing. And Louisville, a No. 4 seed that stumbled into the Big East tournament and then caught fire, heads into this week knowing it has nothing to lose.

“It’s just another game,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I’m going to play my game, and they will play their game. I am just focused on us and nobody else.”

Calipari echoed that tone, urging Kentucky’s fans not to “buy into it,” and telling them to “just worry about us.”

But when it comes to Pitino, Calipari has never been capable of doing that. He just can’t help himself. This week, all kinds of stories will be told about their relationship and how they got sideways to the point of truly disliking each other. By now, though, it really just boils down to this. Sixteen years ago, Pitino won a national title at Kentucky, beating a young Calipari and his UMass team in the Final Four.

Calipari, in some ways, wanted everything Pitino had: the NBA cachet, the blueblood job, the best players. And when Calipari finally got it at Kentucky, part of the allure was the ability all those years later to overshadow Pitino in his own state, to turn his program into an also-ran.

So for three years now, they’ve gone back and forth, their petty personal rivalry often front-and-center. But at the end of the day, Calipari has done exactly what he wanted, beating Pitino repeatedly head-to-head in recruiting and winning all three games between the two teams, including this past New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, Calipari is 100-14 at Kentucky, and until this tournament run, Louisville has struggled at times to find its way over the same stretch. Who could blame Pitino for feeling threatened by that?

But here’s the game that matters most, and Calipari can’t lose it. He just can’t. For all the incredible things he’s done at Kentucky, he’d never be forgiven for losing to Louisville right now.

“There will be people in Kentucky who will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Pitino said Saturday.

One person in particular. Calipari came to Kentucky for these kind of moments, to face championship pressure year in and year out. But this big of a game with this good of a team against this hated an opponent? This isn’t all-or-nothing for Calipari; now it’s all-or-nightmare.