However hotly contested, the Kentucky-Michigan State game contains a mutual admiration society. John Calipari likes Tom Izzo. And vice versa.
"The great thing is we don't make it personal," Calipari said Monday of his friendship with Izzo. "It doesn't mean we don't go after recruits hard. We've lost guys to them. They've lost guys to us. But it's never personal."
After a pause, Calipari added, "Being able to go back and forth, shouldn't it be that way?"
When a reporter suggested that Calipari was really saying Izzo was not Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, Calipari smiled slightly and said, "That's what you're saying."Similar career paths helped draw the coaches closer, Calipari said. Both came up through the ranks as assistants.
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Izzo found it difficult to explain the source of the friendship.
"I don't know why I like the guy," he said. "I respect the fact he can take a bunch of freshmen and for the most part change the team and get them to play at a high level."
Saying that UK recruited seven of the top 10 prospects in the high school class of 2013, Izzo said, "Nobody has that. Nobody. But he has to coach them."
Izzo said he admired how Calipari demanded a lot and did not coddle the starry freshmen.
The two speak from time to time. They kid each other, as they did the last few days as Calipari said it was "no fair" that Kentucky's freshmen had to play a tough opponent this early in the season, and Izzo replied that he'd accept a forfeit victory.
"Sometimes we treat it like life and death, that I've got to prove I'm better than this guy or I've got to prove I'm better than that guy," Calipari said. "Tommy and I aren't that way, neither one of us. ... He's a great guy aside from being a great coach."
Calipari noted that teams can't learn about themselves against "Popcorn State." But you can get a dress rehearsal that way.
While UK routed UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky, Michigan State opened the season by beating McNeese State 98-56.
Three Spartans posted double-doubles: Adreian Payne (10 and 10), Gary Harris (20 and 10) and Branden Dawson (12 and 12). Izzo also liked that State got credit for 32 assists among its 42 baskets.
Izzo had mixed feelings about the 10-for-26 three-point shooting. "Our identity shouldn't be taking 25 or 26 three-point shots," he said.
But the State coach has spoken glowingly of the intangibles his team possesses.
"It's one of those teams that's been exciting to be around," he said in October. "The chemistry this summer has been as good as it's been in a long time. The exciting thing is you know what you're going to get to coach, but what we get to coach is all improved."
Youth vs. experience
Izzo downplayed the significance of State's experience.
"There's no question they have the most talent of any team in the country," he said of the Cats. " ... There's probably a ton of NBA teams that don't have seven first-round draft picks. Think about it."
UK figures to start four freshmen and sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. State does not have a freshman among the first nine players.
Izzo advised not buying the blanket appraisal that Kentucky is pure talent and State simply crafty experience.
"I don't think we get enough credit," he said. "We have good players, too. I don't think Kentucky gets enough credit. John's a good coach. They're not just talent."
Win or lose, the fan bases figure to overreact.
"Does everybody go crazy if you lose one? Yes," Izzo said. "How does that affect your team? You never know until it happens. Does everybody go crazy if you win one and what does that do to your team? ...
"To win or lose this time of year means nothing."
No. 1 vs. No. 2
No. 1 teams have a 15-7 record against No. 2 teams on a neutral court. Overall, No. 1 teams have a 21-17 record in such games.
UK has not been in a No. 1-versus-No. 2 game since the 1996 Final Four, when the Cats beat No. 1 UMass 81-74 in the national semifinals.
UK is 5-2 in No. 1-versus-No. 2 games. That ties UCLA (5-4) for the second-most victories
North Carolina is 7-0 in such games.
Izzo likes big games. Since 1998, Michigan State has played more ranked teams (176) than any other program. ... Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Andy Katz will call the game.