Rick Pitino previews Pittsburgh

Rick Pitino
Photo: Tim Haag/CardinalSportsZone.com

The Cards take on 17/20 ranked Pittsburgh (14-1) tonight at 9:00 at the KFC Yum! Center. On Wednesday, Rick Pitino talked about the game, the loss to Clemson, the graduate transfer policy, and more. The transcript is below…

Opening statement
We’ve seen some really fine Pitt teams come in here, but this will be one of the best ones we see. They’ve had some great teams. But this one is a veteran ballclub that statistically does some scary things. Their point guard, just think about it, has the best assist-turnover ratio in the history of the ACC, and you know how many great point guard there have been. They play great defense. They rebound well. They’re the No. 1 foul shooting team in the country. Great assist-turnover ratio. So we’re going to have to play much better defense than we’ve played to come away with a victory. And we’re still working on becoming a better defensive team.

Q: How, typically, do they get to the line?
PITINO: Well they execute. They don’t go — because they’ve been together, these guys. They don’t beat themselves. If you’re not on top of your game defensively, they can embarrass you with the things they do. They’ll isolate one-on-one from the elbow, isolate pick-and-rolls, drive into the body of the man and they get fouls.

Q: What were the main lessons that come out of a game like Sundays?
PITINO: I don’t think there were any main lessons, to be honest with you. I think that our guards forced things too much and they were trying to win so much that they wound up taking bad shot and shooting themselves in the foot. I think if anything was learned it was that. Let the game come to you, and, you know, because they’re new to our program, we talk about challenged shots and how important it is not to take them, and two challenged shots led to wide open threes for them. And that’s the danger of taking a bad shot. It leads to something bad. So it’s a four-point, five-point swing, the bad shot you take, they go down and make two threes. So we went 0-for-13 on challenged shots, and we’ve been averaging the fewest amount of any team that’s been here, but we reverted back to forcing things, and that usually leads to bad things offensively as well as defensively.

Q: Jamie Dixon just got his 300th win a couple of weeks ago, you’ve been around him for a long time. Is there anything different he’s done with this year’s team?
PITINO: Nope, not really.

Q: With Damion and Trey and the challenged shots, they’ve had to take those their who career, is that just a process they have to go through to get out of that?
PITINO: It’s not only those two it’s the whole team is new. Like I told them yesterday in our meeting, there’s three E’s that make up a great basketball team. There’s enthusiasm, there’s effort, and it all leads to execution. We’ve got great effort, great enthusiasm, but we don’t have great execution. And unless you trust each other, and pass the ball more, you’re not going to have great execution. And that’s something we continue to work on. That’s what makes Pitt so great. They’ve been together. They know each other. They know their strengths, they know their weaknesses, they know where the cuts are going to come from, and that’s where our team does not know. And that’s why we’re hoping — we knew there would be quite a few games like Clemson for us this year, because of the type of schedule we’re playing. You’ve got to look at the positives. You don’t know where the wins are going to come from in this conference; you don’t know where the losses are going to come from. So you go one of two on the road, that’s the way you’ve got to look at it, and now you’ve got to play two home games and try to come away with a victory.

Q: How much of that offensive impatience is just wanting to make a big play? It has not been a selfish team all season.
PITINO: No, it’s not, they went 5-for-31, neither guy is selfish. They just want to win so badly. They have to understand, they’re coming from — if you force shots you’re going to lose. They have to develop a winning mentality, because they’ve never been in a winning situation, they’ve always been forced to try and take over the game, and they’ve got to blend in with the rest of the guys and the rest of the guys have to blend in with them, because they’re not selfish people at all, but they do have a scorer’s mentality, but they’ve got to start to think about pass first, and what will happen is they will score more points. But again, that’s just a matter of not being together. None of these guys have played together.

Q: You said on Sunday, there were 29 fouls called against you guys on Sunday, and you said, we fouled them. Now that you’ve looked back at it, was it positioning or what was causing you guys to foul?
PITINO: You know, a lot of times, especially in Nanu’s case, fatigue. One of his fouls he reached in in the open court. I mean, that’s, you can’t do that. You can’t be as smart and intelligent a basketball player as he is and do something like that. That’s something a freshman would do. You know, reach in the open court. That’s something Ray Spalding would do. But if you’re Nanu and you’ve been in the program and realize it’s important you stay on the floor, you can’t make mistakes like that. And most of his fouls come from when he’s fatigued. He’ll do something like that. Go over the back, or something. He’s got to stay in the game, and he can’t do those things.

Q: Fouls aside, do you think he’s become one of the best big men in the country when you look at his numbers?
PITINO: Not yet, no. I don’t. I think that he’s got to become a better foul shooter. He’s got to become a better passer. He’s got to learn to go over his right shoulder more. And the most important thing, I think he’s got to be able to stay on the court for 32 minutes and play. Do I think he’s noticeably improved from his freshman year? Without question, he’s night and day. But the time that he’s put in, we expect those type things. Now, Matz and Anas are coming, but they don’t have, you know, Jamal (Mashburn) said an interesting thing about Anas. He said to me, Anas is one of the more talented guys on our basketball team from a skill standpoint, what holds him back is his make-up, because he’s not in a rush. Nanu’s in a rush to get somewhere. Most kids born in this country are always in a rush to get somewhere, and Anas is not, and that lack of drive, so to speak, he doesn’t get the most out of his abilities because of it. There’s good and bad in every situation. We’re trying to rush Ray Spalding along right now. We’re trying to rush Anas along right now, and they’re not in a hurry to get where they have to go. And it’s difficult because we need them to be good now.

Q: Can you teach aggressiveness?
PITINO: Well, they’ve got to become stronger first. Mentally, they could be tough, but if you’re very thin and you’re weak, you can try to be aggressive, but you’re still physically weak. You’re going to take a pounding.

Q: What can you do when the deflection totals sag?
PITINO: We’ve been very blessed the last few years to have lightning-quick guards like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, and they create a lot of deflections. The leader on our basketball team is a guy averaging 17 or 18 minutes a game – Ray Spalding. We don’t have the type of backcourt that we’ve had, that’s lightning quick with their hands and their feet. You’ve got to get it more by anticipation.

The message I told my team yesterday was, when I was with the Knicks, we averaged 116.8 points per game, and Mark Jackson was a rookie. Mark Jackson did not have blinding speed, either with his hands or his feet. But he got all his steals and deflections in the halfcourt by knowing where the ball was going to go and by studying the game.

That’s what Quentin (Snider) and Donovan (Mitchell) have to do, because Mark was third in the league in steals that year as a rookie. There’s many different ways to get deflections and steals. It doesn’t have to come with blinding speed like with Russ or Peyton or Terry. It has to come by anticipation. Some of the great defensive backs don’t necessarily have blinding speed, they just anticipate extremely well what’s going to happen. We’ve got to get better at that. You can’t play in the 20s, deflection-wise, in our system and expect to come away with victories. The last three games we’ve been in the low 20s and mid-20s.

Q: How has your experience with Damion (Lee) and Trey (Lewis) influenced your attitude about graduate transfers?
PITINO: It’s the same thing with junior-college players or anything. We happened to get two unbelievable men – as people. So, you can get a fifth-year senior that’s a problem, just like a junior-college transfer. You can get a great one or — we just got very lucky that we got two very mature, outstanding individuals that came into a team and immediately became leaders of the team and immediately played for all the right reasons. I think that’s a little bit of luck, as well as talent.

If you’re taking another person like that, you’ve got to make sure it matches the type of people you’re bringing in, because it could also be a tough thing if he’s coming in for selfish reasons. These two guys came in because they want to try to make the NCAA tournament. They’ve not been in it. Their reasons for doing it are noble. You’ve got to make sure the guys you take in that situation have the same type of reasons.

Q: Without speaking to (Lee and Lewis), do you fear a disruptive factor when a guy parachutes in as a fifth-year transfer?
PITINO: No. I think it’s — the NCAA makes decisions supposedly on the student-athlete first. If the student-athlete, if you say at the end of his career, these student-athletes, because of an injury, something happening, they want to transfer to better themselves in a fifth year. Now, do I feel bad about obviously Drexel or Cleveland State being without their best player? Yes, but nobody’s recruiting these guys. They’re making these decisions on their own. So, they made that decision.

If you ask Trey and Damion, this is the decision of a lifetime for them to come here and play.They’ve worked very hard to get to this level and now they’ve reached it and it’s been an incredible experience. Everything is for the student-athlete, then that’s something that is very special for them. If you ask any fifth-year senior now — I think Pitt has one (they have three) — he’s experiencing something very special. Supposedly, in this business, it’s for the student-athlete and the priority is for them first. I think it’s a good thing.

Q: I meant it more in terms of the holdover players and losing minutes.
PITINO: Well, it’s no different than — you’re at a big-time school and all the sudden you come in with the No. 1 high school player in the country and he says to you, ‘Am I going to start?’ I’d say probably 99 percent of the coaches in the country would say, ‘Yeah, you’re the No. 1 player in the country. I hope so.’ The other guy’s been there two years, waiting to start, that happens all the time as well. You’ve just got the make sure it’s the right blend.

Q: The NCAA is looking at eliminating (the graduate transfer policy). Thoughts?
PITINO: I think it’s wrong because, for the student-athlete, it’s very — if you poll the student-athlete who is doing it, they would say it’s the greatest thing in the world. Now, I’m not saying that selfishly because we’re doing it, but if you’re putting the priority on the student-athlete, you have to say it’s a pretty good rule.

Remember now, they’re doing it because of an injury and they’ve already graduated. It’s not easy to graduate on time and you had an injury. It’s not as prevalent as you may think, we just happen to be very lucky.

Q: What about the negative reaction from some schools?
PITINO: Well, obviously, it’s tough on the Drexels and Cleveland States of the world, but they know he’s gonna graduate in four years and they’re thinking about it going into it just like we’re thinking we could lose a player to the NBA draft. You know that’s an option. I think this one and done is much better than the other one and done because you’re not getting a six-month education.

Q: Are there more fundamental things to work on than past years
PITINO: Well, this team’s unique. We lost 85 percent of our scoring, so there’s so many things you have to put together in order for the parts to fit into the puzzle. It’s not only rebounding, passing, offense, defense, matchup zone, it’s everything. We got a little bit of the jump with the Puerto Rico trip, but right now we’ve got many, many weaknesses. You saw it in the last game. Guys getting impatient because we’re down, not passing the ball enough, guys got into their face, were bumping and grinding, they didn’t slow down on their screens. So it’s a learning process. We learn every single game and we learned a lot from the NC State game. We’d rather learn with a victory rather than a defeat, but we learned a lot of lessons  from both games, as well as the Wake Forest game.

Q: Are there a couple of things that are more prevalent
PITINO: Well, the Wake Forest game it was transition defense. In the NC State game at the end, it was poor passing. In this game (Clemson) it was the physical nature where they got after us and we backed up too much on our heels and took bad shots.

But this team is — everybody got very excited about it at the beginning of the year — but I know exactly who we are, what we are. We’re very excited to still be in the top 25, but we’ve got a lot of weaknesses. What we’re hoping for is come March that most of those weaknesses have gone away. But you would expect a team that’s new to each other to have a lot of weaknesses. Last year’s team we had a lot of parts that came together at the right time and we hope we can do the same this year. But we’re gonna have a lot of bumps along the way because this is  a murderous schedule coming up.

Q: They seem to like playing with each other
PITINO: Like I said, they have two of the three ‘Es’. They give great effort, they have incredible enthusiasm, they’re wonderful people, but they don’t execute well at any phase of the game. Now, they work very hard at it and they will get it, but it’s in every area that they’ve got to improve and that’s a good thing. Because if they’ve got to get better in every area, just think of how good they can be if they master those areas. But every week more sand runs out of their clock.

Q: What makes Pitt such a good offensive rebounding team?
PITINO: They are a very disciplined team. They probably shoot the best mid-range jump shots in basketball. So they know where the shots are coming off because they take good shots. When we had Russ, we had no clue when the shot was gonna be taken, so it was very difficult sometimes to do it, but he was so creative you live with that. With Pittsburgh, they’re dialed in, they know when the ball goes in the post, the double team comes, they cut immediately. I mean, they are an execution machine and their statistics bear it out. Now they lost one game because Purdue made 11 threes and anybody who has a great shooting night can beat anybody.

Transcript from Courier-Journal.com.

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