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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Cal Faces Former Assistant Steve Roccaforte Tonight

Cal faces ex-aide tonight

By Dan Wolken
December 28, 2006

John Calipari won his 350th game last Saturday, but tonight he will reach a different kind of career milestone.

One he would just as soon do without.

For the first time in his 15 years as a college head coach, Calipari will face one of his former assistants when Steve Roccaforte brings Lamar University into FedExForum to play the University of Memphis.

And regardless of the outcome, Calipari knows it won't be any fun to face Roccaforte, who spent three years as a Tigers assistant before going to Lamar, where he is in his first season as Billy Tubbs' successor.

"I want to get the game over with," Calipari said. "If he beats us, I'll be absolutely out of my mind. And if we beat him, it's, 'Ehhhhhh.' You're beating somebody you hope is getting wins, and that's why I don't like playing them. But it's a good game as a 'buy' game for them and it's an easy trip here."

To understand why Calipari dislikes playing his former assistants and coaching friends, you must understand the emotional involvement he has every night one of them plays.

Following a Memphis practice or game, one of his first tasks is getting a score update from Lamar or UTEP, where former assistant Tony Barbee is in his first year as head coach.

According to Roccaforte, when he recorded his biggest victory to date on Dec. 13 by beating Brigham Young, he already had a congratulatory phone message from Calipari by the time he walked off the court.

Roccaforte, who was an assistant at Lamar when the Cardinals played at FedExForum last season, said he expects to feel some difficult emotions tonight.

"This is my first head coaching job but it's my alma mater, so it's a unique situation," Roccaforte said. "Every time they play I watch them because (Memphis) is where I came from, and when (Calipari) got the job, I came with him on the first staff and I'm proud of that."

Though Roccaforte isn't thrilled about facing Calipari, he said playing the game is financially beneficial for the program and good preparation for the Southland Conference.

"Do I like playing him? No. Do I like seeing him? Yes," Roccaforte said. "And we talk quite a bit, especially since I got the job. He's been a really good friend and a great person to get advice from."

Roccaforte and Calipari are such good friends, Lamar used the Finch Center to practice on Wednesday. As Roccaforte was writing some notes to himself after practice, Tigers senior Jeremy Hunt came running to surprise him with a hug.

"He recruited me here, so I had to go talk to him," Hunt said. "It is (strange), but it's just how it is now. He's a good coach. I loved him when he was here, and I still love him now."

At the very least, tonight will be good emotional preparation for Calipari, who will go through it again on March 1 when the Tigers play at UTEP in a Conference USA matchup.

"It's not a good feeling to even start the game," Calipari said. "You know I'm worried about us. And then I'm playing the game without any thought about former (assistants). I'm worried about us getting better and us setting the tone of how we're trying to play.

"But after it's over, you don't have the same enjoyment."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365


No. 22 Tigers vs. Lamar

When, where: Today, 7 p.m., at FedExForum

TV, radio: WLMT (30), WREC-AM (600)

Tickets: 678-2331

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