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March 19, 2013This wasn't John Calipari's call.
The Kentucky coach will admit that if he'd been given his choice of road destinations in the NIT, he'd have picked Robert Morris, where the top-seeded Wildcats will open postseason play Tuesday against the No. 8 seed Colonials.
But Calipari wasn't given a say in the matter.
"The only thing we knew, two weeks ago the administration came to me and said 'Look, if we don't finish strong, we're not going to be able to host a first-round (NIT) game. Are you all right with that? Do you still want to play?'" Calipari said. "And I said, 'Absolutely.' If that's what we are, then we're playing. We're not above all the rest of the world. If this is what we deserve, then we're gonna go play and see what we do."
Because of the strain on the athletic department staff in hosting the NCAA Tournament this week at Rupp Arena, Kentucky opted out of hosting in the first round of the NIT, even as the top seed.
So instead, Calipari will get a homecoming game.
The Robert Morris campus is in Moon Township, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh where Calipari was born. He attended high school just down the street from the Charles L. Sewall Center, where the Cats will play Tuesday night.
There won't be much of a reunion for Calipari, however.
Kentucky was scheduled to leave Monday and practice at Robert Morris on Monday night. Calipari said he was likely to have some friends in attendance at that practice, but that he was unlikely to visit familiar faces the rest of the trip.
"Nah. It'll be quick," Calipari said. "I told my wife not to even come. Too quick. We're going to get in there late (Monday) and leave late (Tuesday) night and it's not worth that."
Still, Calipari's players suspect the trip home means something to him, even if it's as the coach of an NIT team disappointed to have missed the NCAA Tournament.
"I know he's got a lot of pride in himself," guard Julius Mays said. "It's already bad that we didn't get in the NCAA, but going to his hometown, we definitely don't want to go out there and put on a performance like we did playing Vanderbilt (in the SEC Tournament last week)."
For his part, Calipari will only say that he's happy to give Robert Morris a shot at the spotlight, even if he didn't have any control over the decision.
"If I did have something to do with it, I would've said let's play Robert Morris at their place," Calipari said. "It'll be a great thing for them and hopefully it'll be a terrific game."
The Charles L. Sewall Center, where the Cats and Colonials will play Tuesday, has a listed capacity of 3,056, and tickets sold quickly when they went on sale Monday morning.
The outgoing voicemail at the Robert Morris ticket office on Monday announced that tickets were sold out.
"I heard their students were lined up at 6 this morning for those tickets," Calipari said Monday. "I've had people calling me, 'We can't get tickets. Do you have tickets?' I got 10 tickets. I don't have a hundred tickets. So I think it's going to be a tough, tough ticket to get."
And it's likely to be an odd experience for Kentucky, which is accustomed to drawing 23,000 fans or more at Rupp Arena and playing to the biggest crowds of the season at most SEC arenas.
"We're used to playing in front of big crowds," Mays said. "I think this will probably be the smallest crowd that a Kentucky team has ever played in front of, but you've just got to be ready for it. It will probably be 95 percent of their fans, and might be a few of our fans, so it's really going to be us against that whole gym."
Calipari used the word "scared" to describe the way his team played in an SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt. Mays said the Cats played as though they thought Vanderbilt would be an easy win.
Calipari had no predictions for the way his team would play on Tuesday, but Mays didn't anticipate his teammates assuming an easy win.
"That's definitely not a mindset that anybody should have, because it's the NIT, and a lot of teams that's in the NIT, this is their NCAA national championship," Mays said. "Every team almost that's in the NIT is going to come out and play as hard as they've ever played, especially with us coming in their gym. It's going to be a dogfight."