Q&A with Richard Pitino: 'Too early' to set expectations for next year
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MINNEAPOLIS -- From the looks of the bare walls in his office and the boxes stacked haphazardly in the corner, Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino has barely had time to settle into his new position.
Pitino might be fresh on the job, but he has had a chance, albeit a brief one, to evaluate the current state of the program he has inherited.
Although they stumbled through a rocky Big Ten season, the Gophers secured an NCAA tournament bid under former coach Tubby Smith last season and advanced to the second round for the first time since 1997.
But with a roster that has largely underachieved and the loss of key starters Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, the outlook for the Gophers in their first season with Pitino at the helm is currently hazy.
When Pitino was first introduced as part of Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague's first major coaching hire, the 30-year-old coach was careful to temper expectations, while making it clear the direction he wants to head in rebuilding the program.
Establishing the immediate expectations for next season is a situation Pitino has taken a delicate approach on.
Pitino doesn't see a return trip to the tournament in 2014 as being out of the question. However, armed with a seemingly optimistic but realistic perspective, he insists with his current roster there is still much to be determined as to how this team will hold up during another grinding run through the Big Ten.
"My point is expectations, when you've got two seniors who are very, very good players who are gone, it would probably be silly to expect that right now," Pitino said Tuesday from his office in the University of Minnesota's Bierman Athletic Building. "We'll see how the younger guys do and we'll see who we bring it."
The following is the full transcript from Pitino's sit-down interview with 1500ESPN.com and two other local beat reporters on Tuesday.
In an article I saw posted yesterday, it had you cited as saying it would be "unrealistic" to expect this team to be in the NCAA tournament next season. When discussing what the short term expectations of this team should be, what did you mean by that?
That's not really what I meant by it. What I meant was should the expectations be as high this year as it would be last year? My point was not about the NCAA Tournament. I don't think about that. My point is we're losing two starters in the frontcourt, two very good players in Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. We don't have the depth necessary just yet. So that's my point. I didn't say NCAA Tournament. I don't even think about the NCAA Tournament. My point is expectations, when you've got two seniors who are very, very good players who are gone, it would probably be silly to expect that right now. We'll see how the younger guys do and we'll see who we bring it.
You have had a chance to look at this roster. Now that you've kind of seen what you have what do you make of it?
It's a little tough because Charles Buggs has not been working out, because he's had mono. And Mo Walker got hurt a little bit. So my feel for the frontcourt isn't great right now, just because I know Buggs has got potential but I haven't been able to get with him, so that's hard. Mo's been hurt. But Elliott Eliason's been good. He's worked hard. We've certainly got some great pieces, but we don't have all the pieces intact just yet.
What is Walker's injury?
Nothing earth shattering. I think he slipped or something. He should be fine. We've only had three workouts. He missed one. But he'll be fine by the end of the week
When you look back at film and stats from last season, would you say that solidifying your frontcourt is your biggest need right now? Do you have the pieces at this point that can help next year or do you need to go out and bring people in?
I think it's too early to tell. It's probably not fair to me to ask me - not that you're being unfair - to ask me my assessment of the team after three 40-minute individuals. It's too hard to really tell right now. I know they're great kids. I know they work hard. I don't know just yet how they're going to be in my offense, how they're going to be in the press. It's just too early to tell that right now. Like I said yesterday, my expectations are to get these guys to buy into what we're doing - not that the old way was wrong, but buy into my system, buy into my style, because it's going to be totally different."
But with that said, after a couple individual sessions do you have an idea about what caliber of player (guard) Andre Hollins is?
I do. It's not hard to figure that one out. He's a great player. Andre's really talented, probably one of the more talented guards that I've been around. Scores the ball at a great rate, very competitive. I think what you see is what you get with Andre Hollins. I know that. Austin Hollins is another kid that's got great skill. He's long. I think he'll be really good in the press. He's multidimensional. I really like his game a lot. He's a good player.
Does a player like Austin excite you, because he's the type of cerebral, defense-first guard that could work well in your style?
It's too early for me to tell if he's a defensive ... We've done all offense. He excites me because he is cerebral. He's a coach's son and we obviously know the game very well. It's a joke. But he excites me. Any guy right now in April, any guys that come in and just work extremely hard excite me. They're willing to learn. The foundation has been built with those guys from Coach Smith and what he's done. These guys are fundamentally very sound. Now I've got to put my touch on it a little bit.
In terms of recruiting, a lot of people view in-state recruiting as more valuable, whether that's fair or not. Where do value in-state recruiting as opposed to going out of state.
I just value the right fit in recruiting. Certainly if we can get guys to stay home, I think it's great for the state. You've got a state that loves the University of Minnesota. You've got the pride in this state. I've never seen anything like it. I've worked at a couple different universities and the states are torn. That's the unique thing about the University of Minnesota. It's the only Division I school in the state, and this whole state and the Twin Cities love it. Certainly, if it's the right fit and we can get some guys, if they're the right fit recruiting-wise to stay home, that's always important.
It comes with the territory of taking over as a new coach, but have you been approached by or do you anticipate the possibility of any of your current players transferring?
Along with Buggs, Wally Ellenson was another newcomer we really didn't much of a look at. With his athletic ability, is he a guy that excites you in how he can fit into your system?
He does. He really does. Again though, it's hard to really get a feel, but I love the way he moves. I love his athleticism. I love his ability to slash. Yeah, I'm excited about him.
What can you tell us about Kimani Young and the guys that you have brought on to your coaching staff?
Kimani Young is tremendous. He's got a great personality. He relates to everybody. He's a great coach. He's a great recruiter. He's going to be a tremendous addition to the staff.
How about Mike Balado?
Actually, Mike Balado is not official yet ... He may go back to FIU. They want to hire him as their top (assistant). If he does, that'd be great for him. ... He was going to be the (Direcotr of Basketball Operations) guy. If he can do that, it's still in flux."
What will Kimani's role be on your staff? Do you see him as your lead recruiter?
I'm not into that. I think now that the rules have changed, you can have three guys who all recruit. I want Kimani to coach. I want Kimani to recruit. I want Kimani to scout just like the rest of the guys.
Kimani's past has been well documented - (Young served one year in federal prison in 1999 after being found with 96 pounds of marijuana in his possession). Can you discuss how he's grown from that and what he brings to your team.
I think he made a mistake 14 years ago. I think his story's incredible, what he's been able to rebuild his life to get to this point. It's a testament to him, it's a testament to what type of person he is. He made a mistake. He's the first one to admit it. But now I think he's a great role model to our players, a great role model to the people in the community. He's always willing to talk about it and help as much as possible.
When building your staff, what are you looking for in your assistants?
I want great chemistry. I've worked on some staffs - this year at FIU we had great chemistry. At Louisville, we had great chemistry and went to a Final Four. That's the most important thing. I need to have guys who compliment each other. I need to have guys that make me better. I don't want all the same guy. I think when you're building a staff, you need to have guys who compliment each other."
Now I've heard you are really into advanced stats and the analytics of basketball. What type of advanced stats do you look at the most?
I'm a big KenPom guy, a very big KenPom guy. Probably middle of the year last year, I was really frustrated with our field goal percentage defense. It was driving me insane. One of my assistants said, 'It's skewed because we press.' He said, 'We have more possessions than a normal team.' And then I really got into KenPom and we were first or second in our conference in defensive field goal efficiency. And then I looked at we had a little point guard, he was second in the country in steal percentage. So I look at that. It's very important, I think, for our style. I think it really translates.
Did you get a lot of that appreciation about the benefit of using advanced stats from your time on Billy Donovan's staff?
No, not really. We were into stats. I've always been into stats. If we do a game, we'll chart deflections, we'll chart steals, we'll start charges, we'll chart blow-bys defensively. So we do have a bunch of little stats that we chart that are not the things that you guys would see on a stat sheet. We'll chart what our offense is, each play, what it is versus the defense, because we switch defenses a lot. What's the defense versus their offense?"
Are you a big offensive and defensive efficiency type guy?
Yeah very much so. It's hard to do that throughout the course of a game unless I hired KenPom himself. I'm not sure if I could really figure that out. But I look at it afterwards.
Do you talk to the players a lot about all of that or is it more for your own use?
I had to explain to the players at the beginning of the year what it was because I don't think they'd understand it. But when they understood it, I referenced it a lot..
Last year, the Gophers ranked sixth in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency with a .976 rating. When you look at that, where would you like see that number at?
I don't know the numbers as well as I know the ranks. I wouldn't be able to tell you what I want our number to be. I want to be in the top three in the conference ... I'm a rank guy. I don't know the specific number. I'm a rank guy. I'm not there yet, but I'll get there though.
How much last year in your first year as head coach did you talk with your dad and rely on him for advice, pointer, that kind of thing?
A lot. I talked to him. I talked to him everyday, multiple, multiple times just to how you deal with certain things. I talked with Billy Donovan a lot - 'How would you deal with this?' They were great. It's always great to have two guys, one is in the hall of fame in a few months and one will be in the hall of fame. To have those two guys as resources, it's great, because they'll have different opinions. What you realize is that none are right or wrong. It's what you believe.
Did you talk with Billy Donovan right after you got the job?
What was that conversation like? I know Billy played a role in this, having recommended you to (Gophers athletic director) Norwood Teague?
It was great. He was kind of in the same boat as I was in. He was 29-years-old when he took over at Florida. He was going to head-to-head with my dad at Kentucky. And there were some legendary coaches in that conference, just like I'm doing right now. Billy was great with it. He was younger than me when he got the University of Florida job. We're in similar situations.
Did you talk about the challenges of being a young coach and what to expect in a conference like the Big Ten?
There are challenges at every job. I think that's what people have to understand. I mean, I've worked at Louisville, I've worked at Florida, I've worked at FIU. There are challenges at every place you go. There's not one job that is easy. There's just not. You're always going to have challenges. What it comes down to is do you have a great staff? Do you do a great job recruiting? Do you do a great job coaching these guys and making them better?
It seemed you were being very open and straightforward at your introductory press conference. This fan base has seen coaches come in and make promises about lofty expectations that their teams never fulfilled. Do you have the mindset that this program has a tough road ahead in reloading and rebuilding to get close to meeting the expectations you have in mind?
I think it's very simple. They were an NCAA tournament team last year and they lost (two) starters. It's not hard to figure out if you lose (two) starters. You have to bring in some guys. That's how I looked at it. Certainly if everybody was back from last year's team that would be different. But like I said yesterday, it would be unrealistic to expect after losing (two) starters that we're going to be the same team, not that we can't make the tournament, not that we can't win games. I fully expect to compete hopefully at a very high level. But you can't just write off losing two impact players like Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
How was that experience like of being at the Final Four and national championship game?
Awesome. That whole day it was hard for me, because I had just taken this job and had so much going on. You've got so much put on your plate. I wanted to turn my phone off and enjoy it, because national championships don't come around every day. Certainly it is my father. I've got great relations with that staff. I recruited a couple of those players on the team. I feel like I've had a bit of impact on what happened there, and I was proud of those guys. And so I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. Just to think, in one day I went to his press conference where it was announced he's going to the hall of fame, and then later on that night he's cutting down the nets. It doesn't get much better than that, so I tried to enjoy it as much as possible.
We have heard other coaches talk about how your youth could be something that benefits you. Obviously people you've worked with and left good impressions on are going to say that, but can you talk about how youth in recruiting, specifically in relating to these young kids, can help you in that department?
It's a good point. I don't hide from it. I don't. I embrace it. Like I've said before, I've worked at places before with practice facilities. Louisville had the nicest arena in the country. We didn't get our players because of that. We got our players because of the people, the coaching staff, the players around them. That's where you get it. I embrace the fact that I'm young. Hopefully I can relate to them in a different way. It doesn't mean it's better, but I embrace it.
Without going into specifics, what do you think about the recruiting scene in Minnesota and the Twin Cities?
Here's what I can say. Through meeting the high school coaches and meeting the AAU coaches, it is very clear that they do it the right way. You look at some of these people, these are very accomplished guys who have been doing it for a long time and have won titles. The AAU guys have been great to me. It's very unique. They all work together, they're all on the same page and do it the right way, which is really exciting.
You mentioned the practice facility. Do you think too much is being made about the lack of a practice facility?
Yes. Yes I do. I think a practice facility is going to make my life easier. I'm not sure if it's going to change much more than that. Listen, we've got enough here right now and I have full confidence in Norwood Teague and his staff that they are going to get that done.
Are you getting to know the area a little bit?
A little bit. I know why they call it the Twin Cities. I've figured that much out. I haven't (seen too much), but I need to figure it out here at some point.
It's not usually this cold at this point in April ...
I legitimately lived around the corner from where that bomb blew up at the Boston Marathon. Right around the corner. Two blocks away. And I worked at the Copley Plaza Marriott. The reason I say this is ... certainly it's crazy. I used to go to the Dunkin' Donuts on that corner every day ... but I was looking at the people in the background and it was freezing there. So I'm used to cold weather. I went to school in Boston and Rhode Island.
Did you know anybody who was racing yesterday?
I'm sure I do. I used to go every year. Every year. It's a holiday. It's Patriot's Day. They normally have a Red Sox game during the day. We used to enjoy ourselves. You'd go down with a bunch of friends. My wife went to BC (Boston College) and had friends that had a little condo right on (Commerce Avenue). They run all the way down Com Ave. We'd go there a lot. I know one year we saw Will Ferrell there. It was pretty cool.
So from this point, what is your immediate plan for the next couple of weeks? Meeting with and evaluating players?
It's everything ... Everybody talks recruiting and staff, but you've got to make sure the guys here get better, they finish the year the right way academically. I've got to get great relationships with these guys in the time being, so that is extremely important. I certainly have to solidify my staff. Then I've got to jump on recruiting. Those are probably the three things that are really, really important. I can't make the mistake of neglecting the players that are here. I've got to make sure those guys understand what I expect of them, understand the culture I'm trying to build, because it's going to be different than what they're used to. Right or wrong, it's going to be different.
Do you take a lot of what you learned from inheriting a program at FIU, which was in much worse shape than this one, apply it to how you're going to approach Year One with the Gophers?
It helped me. It definitely helped me, because that was a tough, tough situation. We had six guys that transferred or dropped out in the first week. So I just experienced it and I think it's helped me going through this right now.