NEWARK, N.J. — The way John Calipari told it all year long, opponents ratchet up the intensity, pump up the volume and print up the T-shirts whenever his Kentucky Wildcats come to town to shoot a little hoops.
"We're everybody's Super Bowl," crowed the Kentucky coach.
But when Kentucky and Ohio State clash Friday night at the East Region semifinals at the Prudential Center, there figures to be something of a role reversal.
Ohio State is Kentucky's Super Bowl.
This time, the Buckeyes are the No. 1 overall seed, the solid favorite, the giant luxury liner that keeps picking up passengers and admirers as it cruises through the NCAA Tournament waters.
As the No. 4 seed, Kentucky is in the unfamiliar role as underdog. Instead of the team with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, the Cats are the little tugboat that could.
Not that the boys in blue see it that way, mind you. After their open practice at The Rock on Thursday, stuffed into their tiny locker room while Ohio State enjoyed the palatial (by comparison) New Jersey Devils digs down the hall, various Cats bristled at any notion Kentucky would play second fiddle to any team, no matter its credentials.
"We're not paying any attention to that," said freshman forward Terrence Jones.
"We look at it as two great teams playing," said defensive specialist DeAndre Liggins. "They've got a great team, and we've got a great team."
Instead of giving it that us-against-the-world motivational spin, even Calipari has played it the other way, bending over backward to show confidence in his young troops.
On his Monday radio show, Calipari said, "Teams want to beat us, they want to be us," a statement that brought a what-did-he-say look of puzzlement when repeated to Ohio State players.
When Cal's time came at the podium on Thursday, he admitted, "Well, at this point it's just two teams going at each other and obviously they've had a wonderful year and are the No. 1 team in the country."
Then Cal added, "But we're a top-10 team also."
Yes, the Cats are a top-10 team, at least to most everyone outside the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Over the last three weeks, Kentucky has played its best basketball of the year.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has played maybe the best basketball in the country all year. Where Kentucky won two conference road games in 2010-11, Ohio State lost two games in 2010-11.
Buckeyes center Jared Sullinger is built like a fountain statue. Buckeyes guard Jon Diebler nails 50 percent of his three-pointers, yet it was teammate David Lighty who was a perfect 7-for-7 from three-point land in that Sunday smashing of George Mason.
Freshman point guard Aaron Craft contributed 15 assists on Sunday, and he doesn't even start.
Hey, but when it comes to talent, the Cats aren't exactly bottom feeders. That's what makes this such a delicious Sweet 16 matchup.
"We've got good players, too," said Jones.
And given recent history, this could be the one and only NCAA Tournament go-around for some on the top shelf. (If Daniel Orton can go pro, most any Cat can go pro.) It's one thing for Kentucky's elite to knock heads with conference up-and-comers. It's quite another for the kings of the AAU circuit to match up with fellow McDonald's All-Americans such as Sullinger, William Buford and DeSean Thomas.
Only this isn't a black-out or a red-out or a white-out, this is the NCAA Tournament where one loss and you're out.
"Right now, they had a better season than us, they're playing better," acknowledged Jones. "But right now, nothing matters but just this one game."
Just like the Super Bowl.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.