MHERST - When the University of Massachusetts meets Kentucky today in East Rutherford, N.J., Minuteman coach John Calipari will do more than draw up X's and O's against the Wildcats.
He'll continue to survey his unit, which has been plagued by key injuries and sometimes inconsistent play, to see what needs to be done to tackle the tough stretch upcoming.
For the 11th-ranked Minutemen, battling the sixth-ranked Wildcats is just one worry this week. Thursday they battle Rhode Island at the Providence Civic Center, then they host 10th-ranked Temple next Sunday. There is still no telling when guard Mike Williams, who collapsed on the court when the Minutemen played Cincinnati Jan. 27, will return.
"Right now, we have to go with what we have," said Calipari, whose team lost to the Wildcats twice two seasons ago, including once in the NCAA East Regional. "The whole idea of a game like this is let's learn about ourselves. Let's learn when it comes down to NCAA tournament time what we have to work with. We want to make a run in the tournament. We don't want to just make the tournament."
Two seasons ago, Calipari had one of his best teams. It lost twice to a Jamal Mashburn-led Kentucky team that almost reached the Final Four.
"The difference between us then and now is that then we had several players who could score easily for us in Harper Williams and Tony Barbee, and Jim McCoy, who could create his own shots," said Calipari. "Now we have difficulty scoring."
he Coach of the nationally ranked team is crouched on one knee in front of his bench. He is dressed, as usual, in a dark, expensive suit. His shoes are buff-polished. He looks like a young Wall Street bond broker.
He looks 10 years younger than his age, which, by big-time coaching standards, makes him part of the baby boomer generation.
As The Coach works, he becomes more animated. It is only a regular-season game, but he is pacing as if it is the final minutes of a Final Four game. A call goes against his team and he begins a demonstrative plea, lots of hand motions.
The Coach is used to the spotlight. He is good at his job, and he knows it. Some coaches don't like him, but that might be jealousy as much as anything. He has moved around in his career, always looking to get to the next level. He played the game himself but realized his future would be drawing X's and O's, not executing them.
Thus far, he has made all the right moves, or most of them. When you talk about the best young coaches in the game, his name is on every list.
This afternoon on national television, his team will try to elevate itself another notch. He says it is a big game, but he knows there will be others, and by the time the Ides of March arrive, this game will be long forgotten, just another pit stop on a journey he hopes will end in Charlotte, at the Final Four.
The pregame introductions will be made. First his players, most of them talented enough to play anywhere in the country. Then his name is announced.
And Coach . . . John Calipitino.
That's not right.
It's Rick Pitinapari.
No, not that, either.
Just who is The Coach?
Where did he come from?
Where's he going?
The answers for the University of Massachusetts' John Calipari and Kentucky's Rick Pitino are as complex as they are similar, and Two years ago, John Calipari brought unheralded UMass to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia. Adding to the drama was UMass' opponent, a heavily favored Kentucky team coached by Rick Pitino, who looked so much like Calipari that they could be brothers.
Calipari came to a pregame press conference with a Rick Pitino mask. He joked about Pitino's salary and wardrobe. "He wears Gucci," said Calipari. ''I wear Itchy."
Everyone laughed, or almost everyone. Pitino only smiled. He knew the act from his days as a young coach at Boston University, when he was attempting to build a reputation as well as a program. "They were trying to make John my clone," said Pitino, knowing that Calipari was really trying to become his own individual model.
But Pitino is connected to the Calipari success story by more than just appearances. Pitino, a UMass graduate, was on the search committee that recommended Calipari, then 29, for the Minutemen job in 1988.
Kentucky won that night, and UMass' dream season ended. But Calipari and the Minutemen had established a national presence.
"When I first started here," said Calipari, "I took a lot of harpoons. When you're building a program like we are, you have to have a head coach who is willing to take a lot of harpoons and arrows. I accepted that. I had to step up and accept the blame when things went wrong, and I did. Now I think we're at a different level."
That was apparent by Calipari's reaction to a 2-point loss to Cincinnati two weeks ago. It wasn't a bad defeat, considering the game was played at Cincinnati and the Bearcats were a Final Four team two years ago, having reemerged as a national power under coach Bob Huggins.
But a few hours after the game, Calipari was sitting in a restaurant, poking at his food.
"Three years ago," he said, "I would have accepted a loss like this. But not now. We're beyond that. These are the games we have to win if we want to get to the next plateau."
At 41, Rick Pitino has reached the place John Calipari wants to go, figuratively if not literally. A career that began as an assistant coach at Hawaii in 1974 has taken him to BU and Providence as well as the NBA, where Pitino served as both an assistant and then, when he was barely 35, head coach of the New York Knicks. Now he is in his fifth season at Kentucky, one of the crown jewels in college basketball coaching.
Pitino is everywhere in Lexington. Need to find a bank to take care of your financial needs? Pitino is on television telling you where to go. Need to buy shoes, clothes, food? Just tell them Rick sent you and you get a nice deal. Need a place to eat? Until he divested himself of an interest in the place a year ago, Bravo Pitino was the place to go. Now it's called Bravo's, and Pitino prefers to eat at home with his wife and five children.
Pitino has brought Kentucky basketball back from the depths of probation that scandalized the program three years ago. Spend a night at Rupp Arena -- which is sold out every game, with more than 23,000 Kentucky colonials -- and you can begin to understand the hysteria surrounding Wildcat basketball.
"The one thing I've done well here is not to pay attention to the people in Kentucky," said Pitino, whose income is reportedly pushing $1 million annually from endorsements and outside contracts. "If you do that, you're not going to be coaching here very long because so many things will bother you."
Pitino moves smoothly through the corridors of power in Kentucky. He is not afraid to use juice when he needs it, nor is he afraid to exercise his considerable authority. And the fans love it because Kentucky is winning again. The Wildcats went to the Final Four last year before losing to Michigan in the semifinals. Some project them to go at least that far again.
Each Kentucky home game is followed by Pitino's radio show, which he does courtside with hundreds and sometimes thousands of fans hanging around.
People are still shaking their head at what happened four years ago, when Pitino's radio show was shown on tape-delay television after a game. Because of probation, Wildcat games could not be televised live. But one postgame show drew a 99 share, which means that 99 percent of the television sets in use in the Lexington area were tuned to Pitino.
Compare that to the 80 share in Lexington when men walked on the moon in 1969 and you get an idea of the passion for Kentucky basketball.
Pitino understands where Calipari wants to go, because he has been there himself.
When told that Calipari had called today's contest "a Kentucky home game"
because of Pitino's New York ties, Pitino only laughed.
"He's a pretty good con man," he said. "But not that good. There are going to be 17,000 people there and 15,000 of them will be rooting for UMass."
Calipari heard that comment and laughed even louder.
''It's going to be just like Lexington, you wait and see," he said, trying to establish No. 11 UMass (17-3) as an underdog once again. "We're going to have about 21 people there, all sitting behind our bench."
John Calipari is having lunch in an Amherst restaurant about five minutes away from the state-of-the-art, $50 million Mullins Center, a building he figuratively built. UMass basketball B.C. (Before Calipari) was almost a family affair; it seemed only relatives and students paid attenion. Now it is big business, one of UMass' biggest cash cows.
Calipari talks basketball with the lunchtime patrons. Amherst is not Lexington, and the local basketball coach can still go some places in town and not be recognized, but those places are rapidly disappearing. UMass basketball is changing.
After stints as an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh, Calipari came to UMass in 1988 with a dream to make things better for the school and himself.
"He has done the best job of revitalizing and rebuilding the program that has ever been done when you consider all of the financial problems that he faced when he got there," said Pitino.
Success, measured in wins, television exposure, facilities and blue-chip players, has come at such a rapid pace that even the UMass administration has been stunned.
"You couldn't go out and buy this exposure," said athletic director Bob Marcum. "The cost would be prohibitive, and it's all because of John. He's sold the program everywhere you can imagine. I think for a chance to get exposure, he would have played a game on the middle of Interstate 91."
Calipari has come close to that. He has agreed to take the Minutemen anywhere in the country that a Top 20 team will play them. His team has played at midnight and at noon. It has played in Alaska. It has played where no Minuteman teams had ventured in the past.
"Football coach Mike Hodges said that John has taught us a lesson, which is, 'There is nothing wrong with being good,' " said Marcum, who is negotiating to have UMass play in the first Wooden Classic next year along with UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky. "You look at those teams and you see that we're the only one without a national championship. It's nice to be in that type of game."
Calipari says he has not changed.
"I still live in the same house, drive the same car, wear the same clothes," he said. "We play the same way we've always played. We just get better players."
That is perhaps the biggest difference. Two years ago, UMass was a nice little team and Calipari was a coach on the rise who could milk the role of underdog to the limit. UMass and Calipari are a notch higher now.
"We can play with anybody," said Calipari, who has seen his team beat North Carolina and Oklahoma this season. "We're able to walk into a game and a team will say, 'Hey, these guys can beat us.'
"The other side to that is we have a bull's-eye on our back in every game. We made DePaul's season when it beat UMass last month. We have to accept that. Now we're supposed to win."
But so is No. 7 Kentucky (17-3), which is why today's game has such national significance.
If you watch (1:30 p.m., Channel 5), you will see two coaches at the same level as their teams. They will yell, scream and plead. They will get down on the floor and get in their players' faces.
"You look at Coach Pitino and it's the same philosophy he's always had," said Kentucky assistant coach Billy Donovan, who played for Pitino at Providence. "We run the same drills, do the same things we did then. When he's coaching, he's teaching. He's so intense, but you can't take it personally because he lets you know that he's going to make you a better player." Pitino's team plays in-your-face-defense. So does Calipari's. Pitino's players run whenever they can. So do Calipari's.
"You look at Rick Pitino and he's one of the best two or three coaches in basketball," said Calipari. "He's as good as they get."
When asked about comparisons with Pitino, Calipari laughs.
"It's like Rick says: The only similarity he sees is that we have big noses," said Calipari. "It's flattering to think that people are comparing me with Rick. As far as the similarities go, I don't see it. I asked my wife about it. She says I'm more handsome than him."
Calipari is on the same success track as Pitino was when he began his head coaching career at BU. In Pitino's first five seasons, he compiled a 91-51 record (.641). In Calipari's first five seasons, the Minutemen were 101-57 (.639).
"The first three years here, we had to sell a vision," said Calipari. ''We had to sell the staff. We had to sell the direction of the program. Now we have to sell results. We can go into any home in the country and they've heard of us because of television."
Calipari, who recently signed a contract extension through the year 2000, remembers his first job, at Kansas.
"It was as a volunteer," he said. "I worked the training table. I said, 'Peas or corn? See you at 3:30,' and that was it."
Now you can see him almost any time, day or night. Just like you can see Rick Pitino all day, all night, all the time. Who are these guys, John Calipitino or Rick Pitinipari? It doesn't matter. All you need to know is that they can coach as well as anyone.
AST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With 2:21 remaining in the game, they led by 4. The head coach thought to himself, "One more stop, one more rebound, and we win." The team's leading scorer, slightly more optimistic, thought to himself, "We're going to win this game."
At that point, it appeared both were right. Eleventh-ranked University of Massachusetts had forced seventh-ranked Kentucky to play UMass basketball. The Minutemen made it a basket-for-basket affair. They led by 7 at halftime. And there they were, two minutes, one stop and one board from hitting cloud nine.
But just as it prepared for takeoff, UMass began malfunctioning. Kentucky, more than eager to capitalize, tied it with 1:17 left, drained three free throws over the last 29 seconds and escaped with a 67-64 victory over the Minutemen before 18,489 at the Meadowlands.
UMass, in the middle of the toughest portion of its schedule, lost for the second time in four games and now stands 17-4. Kentucky improved to 18-3 and Wildcat coach Rick Pitino (UMass '74) is now 3-0 against his alma mater, collecting the other two wins during the 1991-92 season.
Yet unlike the other two contests, Pitino's team was fortunate to leave with a win yesterday. Kentucky shot 35 percent from the floor in the first half and found its press ineffective against the Minutemen.
"At halftime, I told my team, 'It's their tempo, but we need to play these style games,' " said Pitino, whose team led, 27-18, with 8:03 left in the first half then was held to just two free throws the remainder of the half and trailed, 36-29, at intermission.
But the Wildcats, led by forward Jared Prickett (17 points, 15 rebounds) played primarily seven men, including three seniors, and down the stretch they fared better than a six-man UMass rotation consisting of one sophomore, two juniors and three first-year players.
For that, UMass coach John Calipari faulted himself. "I thought it was a very poor job in team management, particularly in the last 1:30," said Calipari, still playing without junior shooting guard Mike Williams (15.5 points per game), who has not rejoined the team since collapsing on the court against Cincinnati Jan. 27.
"My game management was poor. Hopefully I can help us win games more than we lose, but I didn't today."
Both Calipari and Pitino praised UMass forward Lou Roe (a game-high 28 points, 13 rebounds).
Trailing, 64-60, with 2:21 left, Kentucky cut it to 2 on a 17-foot running jumper by guard Tony Delk. The Wildcats tied it at 64 with 1:17 left when they shifted their offense to the right side of the court and Prickett sneaked behind the UMass defense for an uncontested layup.
Kentucky stiffened its 2-3 zone, and UMass guard Donta Bright missed a jumper. Kentucky forward Roderick Rhodes hit two free throws with 29 seconds left, putting the Wildcats up, 66-64. On UMass' next possession, guard Edgar Padilla missed a jumper and center Marcus Camby committed his fifth foul, over the back of Prickett, with 6.8 seconds left. Prickett hit one of two free throws for the 67-64 margin.
"I was waiting for Coach Cal to call a timeout," said Padilla about the play that followed Rhodes' free throws. "I looked at him and he didn't call time out. So with eight seconds left, I called a play and no one went to their spots, so I just shot it, and the ball went off."
Calipari agreed. "I should have called a timeout," he said. "Padilla's a freshman. He was confused. In most situations, you want to play on, because you don't want to give the defense a chance to get set. But I should have called a timeout. He took the shot and I just hoped it went in. You can't coach that way."
UMass did call time out with 4.2 seconds left to set up its last shot. When play resumed, forward Dana Dingle inbounded to Roe in the paint and Roe passed out to Bright, who was at the top of the key behind the 3-point line. Bright's shot hit the right side of the rim and bounced off.
AST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Your State U was right there. They were all dressed up in their best suit. They had made what they truly believed was a stunning presentation. They were feeling great. They were going to make another big score, just like that Thanksgiving Carolina caper. Another hoop legend was going down.
The Brendan Byrne Arena scoreboard was keeping track of the proceedings. With 2:21 remaining it was UMass 64 and (mighty) Kentucky 60, and John Calipari was almost ready to pop the cork on the mental champagne.
" 'Let's get out of here,' I was thinking," said the UMass coach. " 'One stop and one rebound, and we win.' "
But something went wrong. They couldn't close the deal. UMass never scored again, which would have been OK, except for the troubling fact that Kentucky scored the final 7 points of the game. The Minutemen became the scalpees, rather than the scalpers.
That made for a much longer trip back home for the vast UMass contingent, but it hardly changed the reality of the UMass situation. Simply put: given the reality of a non-conference date, would you rather spend your Sunday afternoon beating up on, say, St. Francis of Loretto before a bored home crowd at the Mullins Center or lose to Kentucky before 18,489 in a very nice, hard- fought game on national television?
That's a pretty easy call for Calipari, who is what you might call a global thinker.
"I learned a lot about my team today," he said. "Whether you win or lose a game like this, the biggest key is what you learn. I learned we're a little better team than I thought we were. I learned we've got to do certain things against the zone. I learned a lot about freshman guard Edgar Padilla. If they drop us in the polls because we lost, so what? They can drop us to 50th; I don't care."
Understand this about Your State U: with cautious -- or perhaps I could even say "gutless" -- scheduling, Your State U could, right now, be undefeated. Instead, Your State U is 17-4, with losses to Kansas (without standout freshman center Marcus Camby), DePaul (away), Cincinnati (away) and now Kentucky on a neutral floor. There isn't a coach or athletic director in America who wouldn't know how to arrange it so that a team as gifted as UMass could bulldoze its way to a 21-0 record and a single-digit ranking.
But that's not the Calipari way. He isn't interested in padding his resume with cheesy Ws. He is trying to win a national championship.
Rick Pitino understands.
"I've been coaching 20 years," said Pitino, himself a UMass graduate, ''and I've never seen a rebuilding -- well, actually not 'rebuilding' because even when we had Dr. J we weren't an NCAA team, so let me say a 'building' job -- like the one John has done at UMass. This is the greatest building job I've ever seen. He did things few coaches would want to do. He spoke to all the clubs, he did his recruiting, he handled the media, he got a building put up."
And he put UMass on everyone's Rolodex. Calipari has given Your State U an enviable reputation. UMass is now Exhibit A of a program that ducks no one, that as much as any school in the country believes that playing the best competition is both an end in itself and a logical way to improve. For every UMass there are 50 schools whose leaders lack the courage and wisdom to pursue this difficult approach.
Of course, it helps to have a few decent players at your disposal. You can't be sending little laddies out on these men's missions.
Players like Lou Roe, for example. Against North Carolina and Kentucky, the two schools with, arguably, the best basketball traditions in America, this 6- foot-7-inch junior forward has helped himself to 56 points and 27 rebounds. His 28 points and 13 rebounds yesterday included some absolutely ferocious inside maneuvers.
"He's a special basketball player," lauded Pitino. "Here is someone that every school puts up on the blackboard, 'You must keep him from getting second shots,' and he still gets offensive rebounds. That's like a second offense for him."
"Lou Roe was a man today," agreed Calipari.
Your State U has a tough enough time competing in the highly competitive Atlantic 10. Now throw in such 1993-94 non-conference foes as North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maryland, DePaul, Cincinnati, Florida State and Kentucky. You'd have to go back to some of Dave Gavitt's Providence teams to find a New England school willing to tackle anything like that.
Some people think it's crazy.
"Oh, sure," said Calipari. "I had people come up to me after the Cincinnati game and say, 'Are you crazy? You're yelling at these kids for this and that, and you're the one who put them in this situation.' This is what I've been told. We've got no seniors who play and four first-year players in our top seven. Are we trying to do too much? That's what they're asking.
"But I've got a team that needs this challenge. They learn from this schedule. I was angry with the way we played against Cincinnati when UMass got down 22 before starting to play. How could a UMass team come out and play that way? But they now understand they must play with emotion and passion. After the Cincinnati game, I was finally able to talk to them and have them listen."
UMass played hard against Kentucky. UMass almost beat Kentucky without Michael Williams. UMass made end-of-the-game mistakes that are correctable.
Kentucky executed when it mattered and UMass did not. Next time? Well, we'll see.
Your State U is very, very good and will only get better. I know it's a difficult concept to grasp, but Your State U has a coach who believes he has the resources to someday hang a national championship banner in the Mullins Center. Your State U nailed one basketball icon on the night before Thanksgiving, and it almost got another one yesterday. When John Calipari talks of winning the national championship, you don't hear any other coaches laughing in the background.
|Massachusetts Minutemen (#11)||64|
|Kentucky Wildcats (#7)||67|
|at the Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford NJ|