It's almost as if they were playing hoops at the local playground or rec center, or in a high school gym or on an AAU court, places where they've competed with or against each other many times.

But Boston's TD Banknorth Garden will be a far bigger stage tomorrow night when Villanova takes on Duke in the semifinals of the NCAA East Regional. Millions will be watching on television to see which team will climb one more step toward a potential national championship.

It will be competitive, intense and physical, with a lot at stake, but nothing will take away from the familiarity and bond among players from both teams.

Duke guard Nolan Smith played as a freshman with Villanova's Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson at St. John's High School in Washington. Lance Thomas of Duke was a teammate of the Wildcats' Corey Stokes and Frank Tchuisi at St. Benedict's in New Jersey.

Scottie Reynolds met Duke's Jon Scheyer in sixth grade when he lived in the Chicago area and roomed with Kyle Singler at the USA Youth Development Festival as a high school senior. Smith played AAU ball with Cunningham against Stokes and Corey Fisher. Stokes was on the same AAU team as Gerald Henderson, the former Episcopal Academy star.

"It's been a while since we played against each other a lot," Reynolds said yesterday before the Wildcats held a brief workout and then headed for Boston. "Just knowing them personally and seeing what they do on the court, it's a lot of fun to see all of them grow into the players they've become."

As most area fans know, Henderson could have gone into tomorrow night's game as a Wildcat. He had Villanova in his final two before choosing Duke.

"My sister went there. My cousin went there," Henderson told reporters Monday in Durham, N.C. "They recruited me, so I'm pretty familiar with all their coaches and mostly all their players."

Henderson was hosted by Kyle Lowry on his official recruiting visit to the Main Line, but he was there other times for pickup games or to hang out. Naturally, the Wildcats players made plenty of suggestions about where Henderson should play his college ball whenever he was around.

"Of course I did," Cunningham said. "I guess I didn't give a good-enough speech. But he was definitely around."

Villanova coach Jay Wright is familiar with several Duke players. In addition to Henderson, he recruited Smith, center Brian Zoubek (of Haddonfield High), guard Dave McClure, and forward Taylor King. All matriculated at Duke, although King transferred last spring to Villanova and will be eligible to play next season.

"We tried all those guys - trust me - but we don't beat [Duke] too often in recruiting," Wright said. "We tried to recruit Zoubek, but I couldn't even get him to come to campus. Nolan Smith, we knew his mom and his stepdad. Obviously, we love the guys because we recruited them hard and we have a lot of respect for them."

Asked about Henderson, Wright let out a hearty laugh.

"Nobody broke my heart like Gerald Henderson," he said, noting that Henderson went to the same school as his children.

"I've known him since he was a little kid," Wright said. "I love the kid. He comes up here, I see him in the summertime. But you can see what he's doing now and you can tell that Duke was a great fit for him."

As for Duke's players, Thomas said he is excited to meet up again with Stokes and Tchuisi, guys with whom he's "been through thick and thin."

"It will be good to see them again competing for something meaningful like we used to in high school," Thomas said. "It's been a while since I've seen both of them, but once I see them, the bond like we had in high school is going to be right there."

Stokes, who played AAU ball with Henderson, said he and Thomas used to talk about recruiting and once considered staying in their home state for college.

"We were talking about going to Rutgers," Stokes recalled. "A lot of the New Jersey players were talking about going to Rutgers, but it never happened.

"It'll be good to see him, but when we step over the lines, we're going to compete and play hard. When we get off the court, we can laugh, but it's all about business."

Cunningham said he sees Smith a lot in the summer because he's "pretty good friends" with his family and intended to text him "to see how he's doing." Anderson said that Smith used to stay at his house and that the two talk "every now and then."

So it will be a grand reunion today when Duke and Villanova cross paths for their workouts, but much more serious tomorrow when each side is going for a victory - and bragging rights.