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NCAA tournament lookaheads: Kentucky, Louisville rekindle Bluegrass rivalry

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INDIANAPOLIS — John Calipari sent Andrew and Aaron Harrison and three other freshmen to sit behind the microphones and answer questions about Kentucky’s upcoming Sweet 16 matchup against Bluegrass State rival Louisville.

Rick Pitino sent up seniors Russ Smith and Luke Hancock.

That, as much as the 70 miles that separates the schools, is the gulf between the neighbors who play tonight in one of the most important meetings in their long, colorful and not-so-friendly rivalry.

Eighth-seeded Kentucky plays the one-and-done game and won a title that way in 2012. Fourth-seeded Louisville goes for a more long-term approach and took home its own championship trophy last season.

“There’s so many arguments,” Pitino said. “I think the best of all worlds, me personally, I would like to see exactly what football has.”

Whether they stay a minimum of three years (football), one year (basketball) or something else, the issue of how athletes fit into a college campus was thrust into the spotlight by this week’s National Labor Relations Board decision that defined football players at Northwestern as employees.

Neither coach would bite when asked how they felt about the ruling. “Has nothing to do with this game, so I leave it alone,” Calipari said.

But both are well aware of the business side of their game that fosters the tenuous relationships between players, coaches and schools. The one-and-done rule has been key in Calipari’s re-emergence as a Final Four coach over the last six years, and has weighed on the minds of other coaches, like Pitino, who don’t land the NBA-ready kids as frequently but often find themselves competing against them.

“I think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt,” Calipari said. “Kids are going on to the league from us and performing, and I’m proud of that.”

Calipari, whose 2012 title team came behind one-and-doner Anthony Davis, now of the Pelicans, saw the negatives of having to rebuild every year play out in stark detail this season. A starting lineup with five freshmen struggled with expectations, sharing, listening and handling criticism.

Now comes the payoff. Calipari has figured out how to get the most from the Wildcats (26-10) and, as a result, they are clicking. Aaron Harrison has scored 18 and 19 points in the last two games. His brother had 20 in Kentucky’s 78-76 upset over Wichita State. Yet another freshman, James Young, made a 3-pointer that gave Kentucky the lead in that game with less than 2 minutes to go.

Not that managing a more experienced roster, with seven players coming off a national title, has been all smooth sailing for Pitino and the Cardinals (31-5).

Since 1983, the teams have met in the regular season every year.

This season’s game was a 73-66 Kentucky victory that served as only a brief respite for the Wildcats, who sank from top-ranked team at the beginning of the season to out of the poll by March 10.

The Cardinals were hardly a finished product at the time, either. Like Kentucky, they’ve saved their best basketball for March. They won their conference tournament games by an average of 33, then figured ways to grind out ugly wins against Manhattan and St. Louis.

Healthy Mich. St. plays VIRGINIA

Michigan State hasn’t changed its name but it hasn’t been said in the last couple of weeks without “finally healthy” right before it.

It’s true. The Spartans are finally healthy and they are playing like the team that started the season 18-1 and spent three weeks at the top of the AP Top 25.

“I do think we have taken giant steps in the last 2 1/2 weeks,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We got our guys back. ... I thought the Big Ten tournament we did play awfully well. I thought we played well in Spokane.

“Are we back to the team we were then? Probably not, but are we as close as we have been all year? Definitely.”

The finally healthy and fourth-seeded Spartans (28-8) meet top-seeded Virginia (30-6) on Friday night in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The winner will face the winner of the Connecticut-Iowa State game on Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.

The Cavaliers haven’t had any health issues to speak of and they certainly haven’t spent much time sulking over losses.

Since Jan. 18, they are 18-1, closing the season the way the Spartans started it. They won their first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title since 1981 and swept to their first ACC tournament championship in 38 years.

“I think our guys, they have been steady all year since we got into conference play,” said coach Tony Bennett, who has led the Cavaliers to three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1981-83.

Michigan State has always been known for its toughness and rebounding ability under Izzo, who had led the Spartans to six Final Fours, including the 2000 national championship. This team, Izzo’s sixth to reach the round of 16 in the last seven years, comes in averaging 76.6 points per game, about 10 points better than Virginia.

The Cavaliers, who would set a school record with a 31st win and are making their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995, lead the nation in defense, allowing 55.5 points per game.

Iowa State meets UConn

Kevin Ollie and Fred Hoiberg met as high school basketball stars more than two decades ago when they went on the same recruiting trip to Arizona.

Ollie chose UConn instead. Hoiberg picked Iowa State.

“I think it worked out for both of us,” Ollie said with a smile.

Each now coaches his alma mater, and they’ll face each other today in the Sweet Sixteen at New York.

In between that shared visit to Tucson and this week’s NCAA tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden, Ollie and Hoiberg were teammates for part of a season with the Chicago Bulls in 2001-02. Six years later, when Hoiberg was an assistant general manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he lobbied to sign Ollie because he knew the veteran could provide needed leadership.

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