SYRACUSE - The subject was recruiting, and Kentucky coach John Calipari was telling a tale about once losing a kid he wanted to Penn of the Ivy League. He figured there was no way to lose a recruiting battle to a school that doesn't offer athletic scholarships, but he did.
It was meant to be a self-effacing story, and it worked well enough except that it was followed by an especially pungent recruiting-related question. Now that Memphis University's appeal of NCAA recruiting sanctions incurred under Calipari has been denied, the Kentucky coach was asked, "How does it affect you personally to have two Final Fours stricken from the records?''
Calipari quickly brushed it aside, saying his statement is on his Web site, and he won't address it during the NCAA Tournament. But it's a question that followed Calipari from Massachusetts to Memphis to Kentucky, where he put together the nation's top recruiting class in his first season in an effort to return the 34-2 Wildcats to the top of the college basketball pyramid.
The contrast with Cornell, Kentucky's opponent in the East Regional semifinals Thursday night at the Carrier Dome, could not be more stark. While Big Red coach Steve Donahue is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame for taking an Ivy League team to the Sweet 16, Calipari is trying to win his first national title with a team that includes at least two probable NBA lottery picks in freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
"In the recruiting process, I'm looking more than anything for competitiveness,'' Calipari said. "I'm looking more than anything for a young man that's a great teammate.''
If they happen to be McDonald's All-Americans, so much the better. Calipari's success with elite-level players is the reason he was hired by Kentucky, where the players and coach are icons to be worshipped as long as the wins keep coming.
"At Kentucky, there's an expectation level that you win every game . . . by 20,'' Calipari said. "When you're in the middle of it, you cannot believe how connected the fans are and how connected the state is.
"But what goes along with it is an expectation that's very high. It's not a place for the faint of heart whether you're a coach or a player. If you're afraid, if you're not sure, it's not a good place to go.''
Kentucky is the type of place Calipari always wanted to end up. The big, fancy house on the top of the hill. Contrast that with Cornell's Donahue, who has spent 20 seasons in the Ivy League, 10 as an assistant at Penn before taking over Cornell, where he had losing records the first six seasons.
What does Donahue look for in a recruit?
"We try to find kids that aren't necessarily great as 18-year-olds,'' Donahue said, "but you have a little vision of what that young man will be when he's 21 or 22.''
Focusing on his three senior stars, Donahue said Ryan Wittman grew three inches and put on 25 pounds of muscle, and 7-foot center Jeff Foote made similar physical improvements. Guard Louis Dale typifies the kind of player the top schools overlook.
"For whatever reason, maybe size, maybe he went to a small school, maybe he's such a nice kid that they don't think he can compete, which is bull,'' Donahue said, "that's how you end up with kids like him.''
Can the kids no one wanted compete on equal footing with Kentucky's future NBA stars? Not every day, but maybe for one night. . .