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Critics come with the territory for Kentucky Coach John Calipari

Critics come with the territory for Kentucky Coach John Calipari
Kentucky Coach John Calipari talks strategy with Edrice Adebayo, left, and Derek Willis during the first half of their SEC tournament game against Alabama on March 11. (Wade Payne / Associated Press)

FedExForum was once the place where John Calipari's teams delivered victory by 10:30 p.m.

His Memphis Tigers played their home games inside the arena they shared with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, rarely losing in the years before Calipari departed to become Kentucky's coach in 2009.

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That would seem to make the venue for the NCAA tournament's South Regional semifinal between Calipari's second-seeded Wildcats and UCLA counterpart Steve Alford's third-seeded Bruins on Friday evening feel like a welcoming spot for Kentucky.

"Cal coached there, so it's like I'm playing Kentucky for the second straight time at home," Alford said, alluding to the Bruins' 97-92 victory over the Wildcats in December at Rupp Arena.

There's only one problem involving the story line: It may be only partially true. Any advantage Kentucky derives from familiarity and geography — the game will be played roughly 425 miles from Lexington, Ky. — may be offset by the Southern discomfort Calipari feels upon his return to Memphis.

The city that Calipari galvanized with four deep NCAA tournament runs, including an appearance in the national championship game in 2008, was jilted by his departure a year later.

Calipari didn't just leave, he took star recruits John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins with him to Kentucky. Left behind was an issue with Tigers star Derrick Rose's college transcript, which later forced Memphis to forfeit all of its victories from the 2007-08 season.

Memphis' feelings about Calipari became clear in 2015 when the university announced plans for a dinner in Calipari's honor for being selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame … only to cancel it after a flood of vitriol was directed at the departed coach.

Geoff Calkins, a columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, solicited opinions on Calipari from locals after the Wildcats secured their trip here by beating Wichita State in the second round. Some were supportive and gracious, thanking Calipari for elevating Tigers basketball back to national prominence. Many others were less hospitable, referring to him in such terms as "a craven huckster opportunist" and "self-serving jerk."

Perhaps Calipari should be grateful that locals are allotted only a small portion of the 18,119 tickets for each game. Memphis is expected to be largely overrun by supportive Kentucky fans who will surely try to drown out any boos directed at their beloved coach.

Calipari's itinerary won't just involve the game. He said on his radio show that he would go to Gibson's Donuts, attend Friday Mass at the church he once frequented and drive by his old house. He also planned to attend an event with friends Wednesday alongside his wife, Ellen.

"When we land, we're going right there," Calipari said. "Come on, hey, everybody hug, OK, I've got to go work. It's great seeing you. I saw everybody, right? Touched everybody? Great. Now, no one's mad? Everybody's good? All right. See you later. Enjoy the game. I'll see you on Friday."

The Wildcats won't have to travel far for the game. They will stay at the Westin hotel, directly across the street from FedExForum.

UCLA also has a history at the nearly 13-year-old arena, albeit a much shorter one. The Bruins advanced to a regional semifinal here in 2014, playing Florida in another matchup against a storied Southeastern Conference team.

UCLA was trailing by only three points when point guard Kyle Anderson went to the bench midway through the second half. By the time he returned, the Bruins were down by eight on the way to a 79-68 loss. On the court during the Gators' run: UCLA freshman guard Bryce Alford.

"I had a much different role then than I did now," said Alford, now a senior, "but it will be good to get back in that arena playing somewhere that I'm somewhat familiar with. I know it will be better than playing a Sweet 16 game in a football arena. I know I didn't like that too much my sophomore year."

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Alford was referring to Reliant Stadium in Houston, where the Bruins fell to Gonzaga in a 2015 regional semifinal. Alford made three of 11 shots during his team's 74-62 setback.

UCLA has not advanced to a regional final since it went to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08. The final year of that run was also the last time Calipari guided Memphis to basketball's biggest stage.

"I can put it this way: My teams haven't lost many in that building," Calipari said.

Many of the natives would, no doubt, appreciate one more.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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