John Clay

At start of NCAA Tournament, Indianapolis is the place to be, but someone is missing

If you are picking any particular spot on the planet to start your NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament run, you could not find a better place than Indianapolis.

For starters, it’s in Indiana, where they care about basketball a great deal. And it’s Indianapolis, which if many of us had our way would be the permanent host for the Final Four, what with its connected walkaways, its close proximity to various downtown attractions and its fondness for the sport.

This year, among the eight teams here for first- and second-round games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, there is Kentucky here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And Louisville. And Michigan. And Dayton. And Wichita State. And Oklahoma State. And a pair of Cinderellas. We’re talking about programs and fan bases that care about basketball.

“Teams that travel,” said UK coach John Calipari. “If you have tickets, hold onto them. Don’t put them in your pocket. Hold them in your hand. They’re going to have value.”

Earlier in the day, there was Calipari walking through the media workroom. He was wearing a blue UK warmup jacket and carrying a beverage cup. Chris Woolard, the associate AD for basketball operations, was by his side. No one paid Calipari much mind. It was a couple of hours before he was scheduled to meet the media, but maybe he was on his way to a CBS interview to talk about the Cats’ first-round game with Northern Kentucky on Friday night. It’s part of the deal.

Not long before, Louisville’s Rick Pitino had been on the podium to talk about the Cardinals’ first round game against Jacksonville State on Friday. Louisville is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. Jacksonville State is the No. 15 seed, coached by Ray Harper, the former Western Kentucky coach.

We are in Indiana, however, where there was big basketball news of the day outside the tournament. Down the road in Bloomington, Indiana University announced it has parted ways with head basketball coach Tom Crean after nine seasons. If the move was unexpected, it wasn’t shocking. Crean was at IU for nine seasons. No Final Fours. Not even an Elite Eight. Indiana expects more.

As you might expect, Pitino was asked about the Crean firing. The two teams played each other on New Year’s Eve. Louisville won 77-62. Pitino said he hates that part of the business. He called Crean a workaholic, a great teacher.

“I thought when I took over the University of Kentucky, it was as low as it could possibly get in every aspect, until Tom Crean took over Indiana was even lower,” Pitino said. “We were on probation for two years, but Tom Crean took over a team that couldn’t win, period. He took it from the bottom to a couple of conference championships.”

Calipari is tight with Crean. The two have been friends since they were both coaches in Conference-USA — Calipari at Memphis; Crean at Marquette. The two biggest victories of Crean’s career came against Kentucky, in 2002-2003 when Dwyane Wade and Marquette beat Tubby Smith and UK in the Midwest Region final to reach the Final Four; and in 2011-12 when Christian Watford hit the shot at Assembly Hall that took down what would ultimately be Caliapri’s national title team.

“Just disappointed,” said Calipari of Crean. “I’ve been fired. I know what it’s like. I know what it is to your family, your wife, your kids. They take it harder than you take it. ... If he wants to take another job, he’ll get it.”

Here’s the thing: Crean isn’t here, and you have to be here. Indiana went 18-16 this season, missing the tournament for the second time in the last four years. You can’t do that. Not at a place that cares about basketball.

When Pitino was asked about John Brannen, the young coach at Northern Kentucky, which plays UK on Friday, he cracked, “Enjoy him. He’ll be gone if he gets one win. No, I’m kidding.”

Actually, he’s not. Such is the power of the tournament.

“When I was in the pros,” said Pitino, “I missed this terribly.”

It’s the place to be.

KENTUCKY VS. NORTHERN KENTUCKY

When: Friday, 9:40 p.m. (approximate)

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV: CBS with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson

Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

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