When you think about those pre-season or exhibition games, you tend to have an indifferent attitude. You usually have no reason to get fired up for the meaningless games.
But UK’s exhibition basketball matchup against West Palm Beach’s Northwood University on Thursday night is certainly different. You have “Coach Cal vs. Coach Mass” in that attractive 7 p.m. game at Rupp Arena, featuring a pair of coaching giants in John Calipari and Rollie Massimino.
Coach Mass is now Northwood’s head coach, entering his seventh season with the Seahawks with a six-year record of 171-37. The 77-year-old mentor also received the 2012 Rawlings Basketball Coach of the Year award after guiding his Florida team to a second-place finish in the NAIA Division II tournament.
And Massimino is returning to Rupp Arena for the first time since he coached No. 8-seed Villanova to the 1985 NCAA title in Lexington, stunning John Thompson’s Georgetown team 66-64.
He has known Calipari for a long time, going back to the 1980s when the UK boss served as a young assistant at Pittsburgh. While they have a professional relationship, both men once were involved in a recruiting controversy. In 1987, it was reported that Calipari had managed to snatch a high-profile Villanova commitment (McDonald’s All-American Bobby Martin) away from Massimino.
In an e-mail interview with this columnist (through Northwood’s sports information office), Massimino joked that he has a couple of stories about Coach Cal but is keeping them close to the vest.
On returning to Rupp Arena where he has fond memories, Massimino said the upcoming matchup is “a nice gesture from Coach Cal to give us the opportunity to go back and play at Rupp Arena, even though the players aren’t the same, but there’s going to be some players there who experienced that moment in 1985.”
According to Massimino, the former NBA coach Mike Fratello also helped bring both schools together for an exhibition contest.
Over the years, the veteran coach says in another interview that he still coaches his players the same way.
“I treat it like we’re Division I,” Massimino told David Fox of Rivals.com in 2010. “I tell them if I put a Villanova shirt on you and a Northwood shirt on the Villanova kid, it’s the same.”
Massimino, who battled lung cancer (surgery and chemo treatments) last year, has over 50 years of coaching experience at the high school and collegiate levels. And he became the school’s first head coach when Northwood established its first men’s squad in 2006.
Northwood’s first basketball game, interestingly, was against Massimino’s old team, Villanova, which came to West Palm Beach help the Seahawks tip off their new program. Villanova, not surprisingly, won that opening game in a 97-60 rout.
Since then, Massimino has successfully built the program into a powerhouse.
The Seahawks — who were scheduled to face Michigan State on Tuesday night before coming to Kentucky — are expected to have a very good team this winter. They are rated No. 1 in NAIA Division II, according to the coaches’ pre-season Top 25 poll, which was released last week.
While Northwood lost Jon Dunn — the 2011-12 NAIA Player of the Year — from last year’s 34-4 team, which dropped to Oregon Tech in the Division II championship game, the Seahawks will be returning eight players with experience, including one third-team All-American and one honorable mention All-American, along with six rookies.
The Seahawks are also the unanimous choice to capture their third consecutive Sun Conference’s basketball title.
With Coach Cal and Coach Mass shouting instructions from the sidelines, it should be a fun and meaningful night to watch, especially seeing how the future Wildcat stars will fare in their first game against outside competition.