EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They are former pipsqueak point guards driven by blind ambition and Type-A personalities.
Neither was going to make the NBA as a player, or end up pushing a broom, either.
They look alike, talk alike--in machine-gun flurries--and share similar tastes in wardrobe and hair gels.
Rick Pitino and John Calipari were born to coach. And pontificate.
The end game was always to get here, the Final Four, yet it wasn't supposed to end up like this.
"I would rather not play Rick Pitino unless it was the very last game for both of us," Calipari said Friday. "We have to do this, so we'll play."
Tonight at the Meadowlands Arena, No. 1 Massachusetts (35-1) faces No. 2 Kentucky (32-2) in the marquee game of the NCAA tournament semifinals.
The winning coach advances to Monday's national championship game at the expense of a friend.
Calipari, 37, would not be the head coach at UMass if not for Pitino, a UMass graduate and member of the search committee eight years ago when the school was looking for a coach.
Pitino, 43, saw a bit of himself in Calipari, then a 28-year-old assistant at Pittsburgh. Pitino lobbied hard for Calipari, over the objections of some, and even plunked down $5,000 of his own to put toward Calipari's salary.
"I knew from Day 1 that John Calipari was going to be a great coach," Pitino said this week.
Their quest for a national championship is equally insatiable. Calipari's team is 11 points removed from an undefeated season, the Minutemen's only defeat coming in a 10-point loss to George Washington. Calipari's motto is "Refuse to Lose," and his team is one of heart and resolve.
Pitino's Wildcats are perhaps the deepest college squad ever assembled, an embarrassment of riches and one that is expected in Kentucky to deliver the team's first national championship since 1978.
"I just don't think you can hide from that," Pitino said of the pressure.
Because Pitino and Calipari ended up with the best two teams in the country, they have had to put aside personal feelings and let professional motives dictate.
Somebody's going to lose.
"When the game ends, I'll hug him, win or lose, and tell him how much I appreciate what he's done for me and my family," Calipari said. "But until then, we're both going after the jugular."
The game is a classic matchup of collegiate powers. Calipari prefers to point out the differences between himself and Pitino, and one of those is in style of play.
The Minutemen are a center-dominated team, led by Marcus Camby, and rarely substitute. UMass is deliberate and savvy, a team that is at its best in a tight game decided in the final minutes. The Minutemen won four games in overtime.
The Wildcats are an amorphous group of athletes of similar abilities. Pitino's bench goes 10 deep and his team won 32 games by an average of 23 points. Thirty of Kentucky's 32 victories were by 10 points or more.
One of the biggest arguments this week was over which team should be favored. Last Nov. 28, UMass defeated Kentucky, 92-82, in the Great Eight, yet the Wildcats are considerable favorites tonight.
Despite his team's 35 victories, Calipari has always managed to portray his team as underdogs.
This time the oddsmakers made it easy.
"It doesn't matter what's printed," Calipari said. "It doesn't matter what the line is. All that stuff does not matter when that ball is thrown up. If we don't do the things we need to do, we're going to get buried."
The Wildcats aren't buying the sob stories.
"They beat us, they're No. 1 and so therefore they should be the favorites," Kentucky guard Tony Delk said.
The Wildcats' game plan will center on stopping Camby, who had 32 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the November game.
Kentucky passed a significant test in holding Wake Forest All-American Tim Duncan to two field goals in last weekend's Midwest Regional final, but Camby poses additional problems.
"He and Duncan are similar," Kentucky center Walter McCarty said, "but Camby can put the ball on the floor and get the ball to the rim. It's going to be interesting to see how well we can contain him."
Camby also has a better supporting cast than Duncan, as he is flanked by guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso and underrated forwards Donta Bright and Dana Dingle.
"If you concentrate so much on Camby, they'll cut you to pieces with the other players," Pitino said.
Of course, Pitino has only himself to blame for recommending Calipari in the first place.
"I wish he wasn't as terrific as he's been," Pitino said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
GAME 2: MASSACHUSETTS vs. KENTUCKY
12 Edgar Padilla
24 Carmelo Travioso
3 Dana Dingle
21 Marcus Camby
4 Donta Bright
MASSACHUSETTS ROSTERS / STATISTICS