By Vin Parise
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I had the chance to check out the practices and press conferences yesterday at the Prudential Center in Newark. Marquette vs North Carolina and Kentucky vs Ohio State are two of the best games in this entire tournament! Here’s some other things I took from Newark yesterday:

* Ohio State players David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale could not compliment Kentucky’s fast break offense enough. They respect their athleticism and the fact that they get out and run so well. You can tell that Thad Matta has been hamering home ‘getting back on D’ to his team this week.

* Matta is extremely impressed with John Calipari’s freshman star, Brandon Knight. He said he can’t remember a player like Knight in college basketball recently. “He’s long, he runs his team, he can score the ball so well and he makes his teammates better,” said Matta. And for as young as this team is, Matta really praised Knight for learning the system and leading Kentucky this season.

* My favorite Calipari statement yesterday was in regards to recruiting. A reporter asked him- since he’s been so successful recruiting the tri-state area – would playing in Jersey this weekend help his recruiting in the Garden State with HS kids from St. Anthony’s, St. Pat’s and St. Benedict’s? Calipari did acknowledge that the talent and competition in New Jersey is very high, and the notoriety and exposure is so strong – “you are definitely getting kids that are ready for the spotlight, so to speak,” said Calipari. But as to “helping his recruiting” in the area, he quickly dismissed the point. “We’re on television playing nationally so much that I don’t think playing here in Newark helps or hurts us in any way.”

* Every coach handles these open practices a little differently. Like the press conferences, there are mandatory 60 minute practices at the arena the day before game. Ohio State and North Carolina got some good shooting drills in but it’s not like they were going to show the crowd anything significant. Marquette was intense and focused. The Golden Eagles even ran a few suicides at one point. But I think that is what Buzz Williams and his team is all about. They always want to project hard work and intensity. Kentucky was very relaxed and the kids just had fun, shot around and took free throws. But keep in mind this is just one of two practices the teams had yesterday. Their ‘real’ practice was in private and that’s where the scouting report talk and hard work took place. For example, North Carolina and Ohio State practiced extremely hard at Seton Hall’s campus yesterday.

*It will be Marquette’s under-recruited, overlooked junior college players who had to fight and scrap to get here against the UNC kids who have always been well known, highly touted and highly recruited. This has been the theme when you talk to people about this match up. North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller was asked if the chip Marquette has on their shoulders from this theme will help them tonight– “I guess we’ll see about that Friday night,” said Zeller with a hint of sarcasm. ” They are a great team and we’ll have to play great to beat them, but we’ll see who has the advantage.”

*Calipari may have been loose with the open practice, but he wasn’t loose with the travel agents. Kentucky was originally scheduled to stay at the Newark Wyndham Hotel. But at the last minute, Calipari changed the travel plans because he was upset after finding out the Wildcats would be staying with the fans, boosters, media and athletic department staff. Kentucky then booked 15 rooms in a suburb outside of Newark to avoid distractions for players and coaches.

* And speaking of preparation, Matta and Calipari are complete opposites. Ohio State has given their players a lengthy scouting report on Kentucky and will have had several team meetings on personnel and strategy before tonight’s 9:45 pm tip. Kentucky was showing their team film of Ohio State for the first time last night and will have a quick 10 minute meeting today about their team. Calipari’s mantra this weekend is that he’s worried about preparing his Kentucky team, not who the opponent is.

* Buzz Williams had to admit that he had flashbacks when walking out to the court yesterday for practice. The last time his Golden Eagles played at the ROCK in Newark, Seton Hall absolutely smashed them the same week Kevin Willard’s team beat St. John’s at home as well. “We definitely caught Willard’s team at the wrong time that week we were here during Big East play,” said Buzz.

* Roy Williams from UNC was asked if he believed the theory that “freshmen are not freshmen this time of the year” – Williams was not totally sold on that theory. “I think players are more worldly now. They’re not in awe as much to play in the tournament on TV as kids were years ago. These kids have been playing on TV since high school. But NCAA tournament experience is still experience and we are very young.”

* I had a great talk yesterday with Patrick Hobbs – Seton Hall’s Dean of the Law School and the man responsible for hiring new AD Pat Lyons and new head basketball coaches Kevin Willard and Anne Donovan. Hobbs couldn’t say enough about Willard’s coaching, Lyons’ leadership qualities and Donovan’s impressive background. “I’m looking forward to backing off and enjoying Seton Hall basketball as a fan again,” Hobbs told me.

Also, be sure to check out this footage of Calipari chatting after practice yesterday:

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