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THERE IS A VERY SPECIAL GLOW AROUND TODAY'S FIERY SOUTHEAST REGIONAL FINAL

Dean Smith seems to be enjoying the rare role of the underdog. At Friday's media session, he was happy and reflective, like a grandfather sitting around the kitchen table, reminiscing.

Smith talked about the phone call he received when he took over as North Carolina's coach 34 years ago. It was Adolph Rupp, the late, legendary Kentucky coach.

"He called me up and said 'You're a 1953 graduate of Kansas, and I'm a 1923 graduate of Kansas,' " Smith said. " 'It would make me feel young if you'd play a 10-year, home-and-home series with us.' "

"Of course, he didn't mention we were in de-emphasis at the time, or that we were down to three scholarship players."

At this time of year, it can give a fan chills to hear such talk. You can almost see Rupp's hoary visage, looking down on the tournament and grumbling over what a venal enterprise it has become.

You're also reminded that college basketball is linked by the generations, and how a coach like Smith is connected to the men who coached the game earlier in the century.

North Carolina has more victories (1,625) than any other Division I program. Kentucky is second with 1,616. Rupp has the most coaching wins -- 876. Smith, 64, is second with 829. But as he gives chase, Smith is being pursued by Rupp's youthful successor, Rick Pitino, for the role of America's best coach.

That's what gives today's Southeast Regional final a special glow. It's fraught with history, tradition and the knowledge that even the greatest coaches must give way to younger men.

"I think great historic coaches going after each other is always fun," said Kentucky center Andre Riddick. "It seems like a Final Four game."

For Smith to reach a 10th Final Four (second only to John Wooden's 12), the Tar Heels will have to be at their best against a deep, talented Kentucky team peaking at the right moment.

Smith doesn't dispute that. In fact, he was the one who brought up the naughty subject of gambling odds.

"I saw they were a 2-1 favorite," Smith said. "The odds for the next team was 5-1 for UCLA. UMass and Carolina were 9-1. That is a great college basketball team. It has no weaknesses. Gosh, they've only lost four games."

Smith loves to poor-mouth his chances, but he's not kidding. The Wildcats have lost those four games by a total of 10 points. They play nine players between 12 and 29 minutes. They press and wear you out, in the Pitino tradition.

Smith didn't let his players watch Kentucky blow out Arizona State, and it was a good idea. If they'd seen it, they might left on the next flight.

"We don't have any first-team all-Americans," said Kentucky forward Rodrick Rhodes. "We're loose and having fun."

North Carolina has two All-Americans in Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. But the Tar Heels lack depth. Plus, three starters are nursing injuries.

"The advantage we have is more numbers," Pitino said. "If foul trouble comes into play, we have more players than they do. Certainly they'll create matchup problems for us."

For Kentucky's foes, the matchup problems begin on the recruiting trail. At a time when NCAA regulations and the diffusion of talent have made it tough to stockpile players, Pitino has assembled a prodigious roster.

He continues to tap his New York-area roots. Rhodes is from Jersey City. Riddick is from Brooklyn. Freshman Antoine Walker is from Chicago. He plucked Walter McCarty out of Evansville, Ind. And of course, he gets many top players from basketball-mad Kentucky.

"We're at the level now, talent-wise, where year-in and year-out we can truly compete," Pitino said. "For the first time, we can recruit the best players in the country."

Pitino is renowned for his use of the three-point shot. He was ahead of his time, in college and the NBA, in exploiting it. But he used it mainly to conceal his weaknesses.

This Kentucky team doesn't shoot the three-pointer as much because it has skilled big men who can hurt you around the basket. They can still hit the bomb, but it's one of their many weapons.

Pitino finally has the team he wanted when he took over a Kentucky program ravaged by probation in 1989 -- a team that is skilled, well-conditioned and physically imposing.

For years, he's been referred to as the best young coach in the game. But he's 43 now. He's been to two Final Fours and was a Christian Laettner-shot away from another in 1992.

It might be time to consider him the best coach in the game, period. If Kentucky wins today and captures the national title, Pitino will have a compelling case.

Smith doesn't have much time left. In fact, if Wallace or Stackhouse leaves, this could be his last shot at a third NCAA title.

Chances are, he'll never meet Rupp's school again in the NCAAs. North Carolina and Kentucky have met only once in the tournament. That was also in a regional final -- in 1977 -- when the Tar Heels won, 79-72.

"Incidentally, we were banged up then, too," Smith said, smiling. "We went four corners the whole second half. You guys might talk me into doing it again."

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