A look back: Calipari, Pitino put their spin on game

  • In this Nov. 21, 1997 photo, New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari, left, shakes hands with Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino before the start of an NBA basketball game in Boston. In 1996, Calipari and his UMass basketball team reached the NCAA Tournament Final Four where they played Pitino and Kentucky. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 12:55:30 PM

Editor’s note: With the NCAA Tournament canceled, the Gazette looks back to when UMass made its run to the 1996 Final Four. This story appeared in the Gazette on March 26, 1996.

AMHERST — As University of Massachusetts coach John Calipari and Kentucky coach Rick Pitino begin preparations for Saturday’s national semifinal showdown at the Meadowlands, it’s clear that words have to be taken with a full shaker of salt.

Informed that Pitino had said his team might play some zone and use single coverage on Marcus Camby, Calipari smiled. “That means absolutely they will not play zone,” the UMass coach said yesterday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. “And absolutely they will be double-covering Marcus.”

Pitino’s comment that UMass’ lack of depth actually helps the Minutemen (because of better chemistry) led Calipari to respond, “That means it hurts us.”

Thus began a build-up of hoop hype between the two coaching rivals and close friends.

“This is Opposites Week for Rick Pitino,” Calipari said. “Whatever he tells you, it’s the opposite.”

What about for John Calipari?

“Probably the same,” said the UMass coach with a smile.

Calipari said that last time he played Kentucky he tried to plant the idea that his team would play some box-and-one defense, even though the Minutemen never resort to that strategy. It involves playing a four-man zone defense with the fifth player chasing the opponent’s top player.

“They spent about 12 hours looking at tape trying to find us in a box-and-one,” Calipari kidded. “To no avail. We just don’t play it. But this game we’re going to! We’re going to play a little box-and-one.”

Want some more spin? Asked how many UMass players Pitino would have recruited, Calipari said, “I think he would have liked our manager. Our trainer’s not bad, either.”

Asked whether Kentucky had any weaknesses, Calipari replied, “Yeah, their third-team point guard and their fourth-team center struggle a little bit.”


Several members of the UMass team have received messages of support as they prepare for the NCAA Tournament.

Calipari said yesterday that among his messages was one on his answering machine from Jim Harrick, coach of the UCLA Bruins, who won the national title last year. The message?

“You got there - now finish the play.”

Marcus Camby spoke yesterday with Ray Allen, whose Connecticut Huskies were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament Friday by Mississippi State.

“He was just happy for me,” Camby said. “He’s a good friend of mine.”

And Tyrone Weeks spoke yesterday with NBA rookie Rasheed Wallace, a friend from Philadelphia. Wallace had made it to the Final Four last year with North Carolina.

“He told me it’s a great feeling to get there, and that I should enjoy myself,” Weeks reported.


Several players indicated yesterday that they have been touched by the positive reaction they have received since returning to campus. Freshman Charlton Clarke said that when he showed up for class yesterday, students applauded and asked for his autograph.

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