Rick Pitino: This team is going to be a fan favorite

Photo: Tim Haag/CardinalSportsZone.com
Photo: Tim Haag/CardinalSportsZone.com

The Courier Journal’s Jeff Greer has an extensive Q&A with Rick Pitino posted and it covers a lot of topics. It really is an informative read. I just wanted to point out a part of it that is interesting when he talks about this season’s team. We knew that the chemistry wasn’t the best last year. In fact, I found it hard to cheer for the team sometimes. They weren’t unlikeable, they just maybe weren’t as likeable as I would have wanted to see. That is just a personal opinion, but one that I know some people do share. Something was just different.

Pitino mentioned it several times last year. Chinanu Onuaku addressed it while practicing for the USA U19 team. The older guys hung out with their girlfriends and the younger guys mainly hung out with each other. The older guys didn’t have patience they needed. It was like a team divided. That should not be a problem this season, and here is some of that Q&A where Pitino discusses it with Greer. He says that this team could be a fan favorite…

I remember last year you were very frustrated, especially early on, with some of the younger guys catching up on defensive schemes.
Last year was one of the most difficult encounters of my time at Louisville because we want to be organized. We hate distractions. We started out with so many distractions, distractions from Jaylen Johnson (trying to qualify for college), distractions from (Shaqquan Aaron). They were distractions we didn’t know about. That started it off. There was no unity, no chemistry early on because of all those distractions. There were sort of two teams. It was the older guys and the younger guys, and the older guys had such little respect for the younger guys, because they didn’t have a strong work ethic, they didn’t understand time management … And so, it’s almost like the NBA and the hazing of rookies. There’s none of that now, because everybody’s young, and Mangok (Mathiang) and Trey (Lewis) have such a good way about them. They look at the younger guys like younger brothers they must help mature. That wasn’t the case (last season). It was almost like, ‘Go get the coffee and doughnuts.’

Those older guys are guys you really like and admire. Was that hard to watch them try to deal with the younger guys?
It’s funny, because I don’t think they understand what they were like when they were young. They had Gorgui (Dieng) and Peyton (Siva) nurturing them like Trey and Mangok are nurturing them. Our older guys — Jaylen Johnson was always late, sleeping. They had no tolerance for that. ‘We’re trying to win a national championship. We’re trying to become pros. This is a business for us.’ Or Nanu not being in shape. They had no time for that. They’re running on the agenda of trying to win a national championship, trying to be pros. ‘We don’t have time, in that sense, for you guys growing up.’

How much does having Ralph around this summer help?
Ralph is a stickler for fundamentals. Always has been. It’s all about the fundamentals for him. Ralph learned an awful lot from the Oklahoma (City) Thunder experience, because his job with the Thunder was to go around and watch college practices. Every single day he’s watching another college practice or another college game, so he’s seeing the good and the bad of all these situations. What I told him was, ‘Just get these guys fundamentally ready from a footwork, passing, catching, blocking out standpoint.’ If we’re doing a 40-minute individual instruction, 10 minutes a day is spent on a defensive fundamental. So, when next Monday comes, they’re going to be understanding what this is all about. But I’ve never heard such glowing remarks about them as people. I just got off the phone with (trainer Fred Hina). He said, ‘Coach, I want to tell you how I’ve never seen anything close to this in the years I’ve been here.’ In terms of helping each other, in terms of attitude, this team is going to be a fan favorite. You know how they love Peyton and Russ? They’re going to fall in love with 10 of these guys. Damion, Mangok, Trey — they’re cheerleaders. You know when you see someone fall to the floor and you see two people come running. I think you’ll see 10 or 12 guys running. That’s the feeling these guys have.

We may have dysfunctional and there were a lot of distractions last year, but we were a layup away from the Final Four. We’re a team that made the top four in the ACC and got a double bye. It does take talent to win, and that’s what remains to be seen. Do we have the talent to win?

Personally, I am really looking forward to seeing this team together. About halfway through last season, I already started to look forward to this season. It is like a new era. There is nobody left from the 2013 Championship team, other than Mangok Mathiang, who was redshirting that season. This is a new collection of guys. And the only seniors are Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, so most of this team will be around for the next 2-3 seasons.

If you keep up with the guys on social media, they really seem to be getting along, young or old. That is great to see, and these games in Puerto Rico should help. Having a team that likes each other will only help the fans like them as well. I can’t wait for it to start!

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