By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Before Kentucky played Auburn, UK coach John Calipari joked that he didn’t exchange Christmas cards with Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
But he might with Kansas coach Bill Self, the coach that he’ll face Saturday night with ESPN GameDay here for the marquee matchup.
“Cal and I have a lot of similarities in the path because he was here (at Kansas) and I came the year he was leaving, so we never (crossed paths) here, but we have a lot of the same connections to people who were here during both stints,” Self said Thursday.
“People can say what they want to and make a big deal out of a lot, which sometimes they do. But the bottom line is that he’s done a ridiculously good job wherever he’s been. He gets so much credit for being a terrific recruiter, but he’s as good of a coach as he is a recruiter.”
Self said playing Kentucky is a game where coaches — at least him — are as excited as the players.
“He’s (Calipari) always going to be a guy that is fun to compete against. I believe that. He may say the same thing about us, I don’t know, but that’s what I think makes this (game) even more fun,” Self said. “There’s certain games that coaches get excited for as well. This will be one of those games that it’ll be even more fun preparing for and watching and that kind of stuff. I’m sure it is for them too.”
Self understands the timing of the Big 12/SEC Challenge that puts this game in the middle of both teams’ conference races. He says it is not a “great game” for either coach.
“But it’s a great game because to the kids, we get a chance to play Kentucky. And to their (Kentucky) kids, they probably feel the same thing about playing us,” Self said. “There’s a natural rivalry there, even though it doesn’t go back as many contests as you may think.
“But when you are talking about the two winningest programs of all time, there’s (a) built-in natural rivalry. Adolph Rupp played at Kansas. There are so many things that intertwine the schools. I also think Cal brings an element to the rivalry with the success that he’s had. To me, it’s not a great game. It’s not as important as playing at Texas (Jan. 29) but in the moment, it’s as big as any game that we’ll have.
“And to our players, they’ll feel that same way too. Breaking up your conference season to do this, I don’t know of any coach (who) would say they are a huge fan of it, but it’s great exposure for our league. It’s great exposure for the SEC and for one day, on ‘GameDay,’ we’ll actually be hearing about the Big 12 and all the schools in it, which is great for our league.”