It's been a fairly busy day in the lead-up to Robert Morris' first-round NIT game against Kentucky, so here is what some coaches had to say about the matchup, as well as the circumstances surrounding it.
Andy Toole, Robert Morris coach
On if the game could be a watershed moment for the program: “We haven’t gotten to watershed moments and things of that dramatic nature yet. We’ve got to figure out how to play and gameplan and get our guys to play their best.”
On the importance of the matchup: “My biggest concern is getting our guys to worry about the game and not the circus going on around the game. It’s awesome to have this type of atmosphere, it’s great to have this type of attention, it’s incredible to have this type of fan support with people lining up to get tickets. But there’s still a responsibility we have as a team and players to go out and compete and do the right things.”
“We have to make sure the excitement is at the right level, that it’s an excitement about competing, an excitement about preparing, not an excitement about just standing next to some guy who’s going to be on a trading card in the next 10 years because that’s not what it’s about.”
On his team matching up against a Kentucky team with so many future draft picks: “Our guys have been in a lot of different experiences and a lot of different atmospheres against good players. You’ve got to go out and rely on some of those experiences. We went to Arizona a few years back and played Derrick Williams who ended up being the third pick in the draft. Those guys are incredible talents, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and compete with those guys.”
On what stands out about Kentucky: “Their talent level and their physical abilities are extraordinary. That’s something we’re going to have to try to neutralize with multiple bodies or great positioning or great fundamentals or different things like that.”
On mentally preparing his team after not getting to the NCAA tournament: “If you’re looking for a consolation prize, this is probably about as good as it gets.”
With regards to Kentucky's freshmen: at this late juncture in the season, is there really such a thing as a freshman? “It all comes down to your understanding level. I saw a great quote by Bob Knight the other day – he said that none of this has to do with experience, it has to do with your ability to understand. There’s freshmen around the country who have a great understanding of what it takes to be successful, then there’s seniors around the country who still don’t know what it takes to be successful and it doesn’t matter how much experience they have, they’re not effective players.”
John Calipari, Kentucky coach
Note: Calipari's comments came via the weekly SEC coaches conference call.
On the matchup: “I knew we would have to be on the road. I’m happy it’s Robert Morris, a place that I have ties to that have good people and a great program, and that we’re able to help that program by playing the game. Now, we’re going to have to go play. They’re a good basketball team, they’re tough.”
“If we were to do this, if Kentucky had to go somewhere to help a program, I’d want it to be Robert Morris.”
On how the arrangement seems bizarre at first glance: “If that’s what we are, then we’re playing. We’re not all above the rest of the world. If this is what we deserve, then we’re going to go play and see what we do.”
On if he had anything personally to do with the game being held in Moon Township, his hometown: “Sometimes the committee says, ‘Hey, Cal’s from Pittsburgh, it’ll be a good story.’ You don’t know. I’ll tell you, if I did have something to do with it, I would have said, ‘Let’s play Robert Morris at their place.’ It’ll be a great thing for them and hopefully it will be a terrific game.”
Michael Byrnes, Robert Morris assistant
Note: Byrnes played for two seasons for Calipari when he first got to UMass and was a graduate assistant with the Minutemen for a season (1995-96, when they made the Final Four before losing to, you guessed it, Kentucky).
On working for and playing for Calipari: “You could tell right away he was very, very intelligent and he was going to be successful in this line of work. I’ve compared coach Toole the same exact way – getting both of those guys [at this stage] in their career, knowing they’re going to be successful.”
On Calipari's connection with his hometown: “People should realize how much pride he takes in this town, as well as the Pittsburgh area. I was talking to someone this morning – when we played for Cal, every intersession or any possible time that we could stay in Pittsburgh...we could be playing a game in West Virginia, we could be playing a game at Penn State…he always went out of his way to have us stay in Pittsburgh because he thinks so highly of this town.”
On the defining traits and characteristics of Calipari's teams: “When I was at UMass, we were in the building process and I could tell right away we were going to be successful. UMass hadn’t had a lot of success, but as soon as he came in, we started to have success. He just knew every single button to press with every individual on the team, and he treated guys differently. He knew certain guys were self-motivated, other guys needed to be motivated. He did a phenomenal job as far as challenging people and getting the most out of them.”
On sitting on the opposing bench from his one-time mentor: “As far as matching wits, I trust coach Toole, I look up to coach Toole and his abilities, and I think coach Toole will do more than hold his own.”