By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It feels like we've been here before.
Nothing quite as apocalyptic as UNLV-Duke some two decades earlier, mind you, but plenty of the same storylines.
Good vs. evil. Jedi knight vs. Darth Vader. All that's admirable about college basketball pitted against the forces that would be its ruination.
Except that it's no more true about Kansas vs. Kentucky for the national title Monday night than it was in 1990.
Back then, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was adorned with the halo and UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian wore the horns. Cast in those roles this time around are Bill Self and John Calipari.
Yet Self didn't have to think long before answering "yes" when asked whether he'd consider changing places — even though Calipari gets more than his fair share of grief for recruiting "one-and-dones," kids like Kentucky freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose reading assignments next year will be NBA playbooks as opposed to say "Aeschylus."
"I'd sacrifice if I had to coach Davis and Gilchrist, those guys, for a year or two," Self added, smiling. "That would be a terrible problem to have as a coach."
Of course, Self hasn't done too bad on his own. He's had only two "one-and-dones" over the course of nine seasons at Kansas, compared to the five who have already left the Wildcats in Calipari's two previous seasons, and the three or more players almost certain to follow them after this one. But Self also owns one championship ring to Calipari's none.
That came in 2008 against Memphis, whose coach at the time happened to be Calipari. In what screenwriters like to call "foreshadowing," four of Calipari's recruits would bolt for the exits after just one season during his eight years in charge of the Tigers' program.
"I don't apologize, it's not my rule. ... I don't like the rules," Calipari said.
But just like Tarkanian, who said famously back in the day that "one year of college is better than none," Calipari makes no bones about being ahead of the curve.
"Now what's happened is North Carolina lost three underclassmen, Duke is losing 'em, now it's different," he added a moment later. "But that's OK. I mean, I'm going to do what's right for our kids. At the end of the day, I don't apologize for anything we do."
There's something fitting about the game's two winningest programs squaring off one more time, led by guys who, on the surface at least, couldn't be more different.
Self is modest, affable and well-liked by his peers. He's known as a coach who's won even more than the considerable talent on his roster would suggest. Not that he wouldn't like more.
"Cal's a unique guy. I mean that in a favorable way," Self said. "He's raised the bar in some ways about how hard you got to get after it because it's been proven, he's going to get guys. If you're going to compete with him, you got to have those same type of guys.
"Certainly in the three years he's been at Kentucky, even before that at Memphis, nobody's recruited like he has. Nobody's coached his guys better, too, considering how many young kids he has, how he gets them all to play for one purpose."
Calipari is funny and fiercely loyal inside his circle of players and friends, but abrasive sometimes outside of it. The big knock against him is not winning it all even once, despite sending nearly two dozen players to the NBA in the last decade. Having been photographed at the scene of NCAA crimes at both of his first two head-coaching jobs — UMass and Memphis — without being charged in either, reporters rarely give him the benefit of the doubt. Those same people never tire of reminding Calipari how the NCAA "vacated" his accomplishments at those schools — ordering both Final Four appearances and banners, dozens of wins and paychecks to be wiped off the books or handed back.
After enduring the wisecracks for years, Calipari turned it into a running gag.
"Two years got vacated," he told reporters on his 53rd birthday a few months back, "so I'm 51."
Yet he and Self have plenty in common, too, beginning with internships under coach Larry Brown at Kansas.
"He followed me," Calipari said. "When I left, he stepped into that spot at Kansas."
And then a few moments later, Calipari told a story that reminded the rest of us that like Self, he paid his dues, that not everything in his career was always sweetness and light. He noted that "spot" was a lot less glamorous than it sounded, recalling his job interview with Ted Owens, Brown's predecessor at Kansas.
"I said, 'What position?' He said, 'volunteer.' I said, 'how much does that guy make?'"
The answer was nothing. The job was almost worse than the pay. When he wasn't soaking up lessons on the practice court, Calipari was manning the serving line in the team's athletic dining room.
"'Would you like peas or corn?'" he recalled, slipping back into the role. "Peas? Great.' I served the baseball team, basketball team, football team.
"They had steak," Calipari said wistfully. "I never had steak growing up."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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