CHICAGO — Hall of Fame coach. Carnival barker. Modern-day Jerry Tarkanian.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari evoked vivid opinions at the Champions Classic.
ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, an unabashed admirer, predicted Calipari will one day be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Noting that the UK coach had never been directly implicated in rule-breaking, Vitale said that the success Calipari amasses will outweigh any demerits linked to two of his teams having to vacate Final Four appearances.
"He's going to win so much, he cannot be denied," Vitale said. "Just like Jerry Tarkanian was not denied. Eventually, you had to recognize what he achieved."
Tarkanian, whose nickname was Tark the Shark, had a career record of 729—201 (78.4 winning percentage). Repeated investigations into his program cast doubt on how well he abided by NCAA rules. Belatedly, he was voted into the Hall of Fame.
Calipari has acknowledged that not everyone roots for his teams. His credibility took good-natured nicks recently when he suggested that it was "not fair" that a freshman-oriented Kentucky had to play a veteran team like Michigan State this early in a season.
When asked about the fairness of the Champions Classic, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, "Do you believe that? I don't think anybody did."
After saluting Calipari as a great coach and perhaps under-appreciated for his coaching, Bilas added, "He's got some salesman, carnival barker in him.
"Certain segments of the population are going to hate him for it. But they aren't sending him Christmas cards anyway."
Vitale took delight in how Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo parried Calipari's not-fair comment. Izzo's tongue-in-cheek suggestion: UK forfeit.
"I cracked up when I heard that," Vitale said.
Of Calipari's not-fair comment, Vitale said, "Let's face it. It's all coach-speak."
Translation: Calipari was prepping his team (and perhaps UK fans) for the possibility of defeat.
"I can give you the press conference right now," Vitale said of the predictability of Calipari's post-game comments. "If he loses, 'Hey, guys, you've got to understand. We have a lot of talent. Very talented. Very talented. But it's Nov. 12.'
"And if he wins, 'Well, we blended together, but we didn't do really some of the things I think we're capable of doing.'
"I mean, c'mon. You know that."
Jalen Rose, a member of Michigan's Fab Five, does not concede anything to UK's six McDonald's All-Americans when it comes to designating the greatest recruiting class ever.
"Are five freshmen going to start?" he said. "If all five are going to start, then you can start the comparison.
"If you start two, three or four, that's when the comparison ends."
Calipari welcomed the suggestion of a Kentucky-Michigan State rematch later this season.
"I hope we do," he said, "because it means we'll play in April."
Calipari said he does not like playing friends, but that doesn't apply to the NCAA Tournament.
There have been three rematches in the history of No. 1-versus-No. 2 games.
UCLA and Houston split two games in the 1967-68 season. Houston won in the regular season, UCLA in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals.
UCLA and Notre Dame split two games in 1973-74. Both teams won home games within a week.
Georgetown swept St. John's in 1984-85.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo saluted how Calipari can whip freshman-oriented teams into formidable opponents.
"I think everybody's looking at the Kentucky way, but there's not many teams that can do it the Kentucky way," he said of UK's annual reliance on freshmen. "Really, if you look at it right now, none. There's not one. As good as Duke and Kansas and Carolina and UCLA and whatever, I mean, nobody's done it that way and nobody really can."