The first couple days, like we normally expect, we have a lot of work to do but the good thing is that the guys are working hard and we're anxious to watch the improvement of the team. Some of the guys that are returning have been very impressive to us. Channing (Frye) has made great progress, Kirk (Walters) and Ivan (Radenovic) we're very happy with. We can see that he (Ivan) is much more comfortable in this style of play. He's increased his strength and quickness, I think.
Isaiah (Fox) has had some physical problems but they shouldn't be long term. He has not been the factor that we would have hoped. Now he needs to get in better shape. He was off for a couple days and it hurt him. Mustafa (Shakur) has improved greatly, he's much more vocal, which you would expect after a year. Salim (Stoudamire) has been doing a good job with the leadership, as well. Hassan (Adams) is going to be a real force on the defensive end, too. He was a huge force last year offensively, but defensively he ended up being matched up inside a lot of times, and his defensive quickness on the perimeter is going to make a big difference for us.
The good thing is that all the guys returning have done a nice job of getting ready to go and the experience is obvious in practice. The freshmen are doing a nice job. The biggest problem with any of the freshmen is that there are so many new things to them. At times, there is confusion from whatever they were taught in their high school situation and you combine that with the level of competition they're working against. It's been an eye opener. It's not like pickup games anymore, people are actually playing defense, which makes it tougher.
It should be an interesting year. We have good quickness on the court, we have good depth, which is going to help us maintain defensive pressure better, and we'll be in a defensive situation in which we'll never expect to pick up on less than three-quarter court. We feel that we can maintain that pressure throughout the game this year, rather than last year or even before when we had good size with Ricky (Anderson) and Luke (Walton) at the forward spots but it left us with some defensive liabilities when we extended out.
How does that depth make it tougher from a practice standpoint? Everyday is a challenge in every drill they go through, so there isn't anything that is easy for them right now. It forces the guy on offense to work harder, and the defensive player to be sounder because he is going against a very good player. That has been one of the strengths of the program through the years, that we've had good in-practice competition, which allowed each individual on the team to get better.
Did everyone come in good basketball shape?
Yeah, for the most part. Other than the problems that Isaiah is having right now, everyone else reported in very good shape from what I can see. Was Fox not in good shape or does he have an injury? There were some days where we gave him a weekend to go home and work out. If you've had the injury that Isaiah had last year, you can't take days off, and that's what has led to his problems right now. We'll have to see how that goes. It's a point we make to all of our guys: if you miss a day of practice you're losing ground.
Last year you expressed frustration because you were not able to bench people if they deserved to be benched. How much will that help this year in terms of being able to coach?
They all have tough competition at their spots. There won't be any competition to substitute or make replacements.
Do you expect any or many of the freshmen to perhaps compete for a starting spot or have a significant impact?
It's too early to tell that. We have to get to the point that we get through (after) a few weeks of practice where they're comfortable what we're doing. The guards, right now, are tending to catch the ball and put it on the floor. There are a lot of little things that need to be corrected. If you've got guys that are willing to work hard, you're going to see the changes take place. All the guys are coachable, but there would be no way right now that any of the four (freshmen) would be ahead of veterans. But you wouldn't expect them to be after a couple days.
Did you sense last year that Mustafa wanted to be a leader but deferred because he was a freshman?
It's very difficult for a freshman to ever take that lead position, in terms of on the court leadership. I thought he made good progress last year. You look back at the freshman guards that we've had, and you look back at Mike Bibby and say he made the adjustment well. If he hadn't had Miles Simon with him he would have had problems, as would any freshman. Last year, it wasn't the case that we had that leadership out of one of the perimeter spots. Right from the start last year we told Mustafa that we needed him to be a leader. I don't think a guy understands what that means until you've been in the college season for a while.
Salim is saying all the right things again now. What makes you think that he isn't going to have all the ups and downs this year? He's a senior. Seniors are not allowed up and downs. With Salim and Channing, because they are seniors, are you sensing more of a hunger for them to be able to reach the Final Four or win a national championship? Both of them have said that it seems like this time has just flown by, which with seniors it's like this year or it's never. There is an immediacy and an urgency there from them they have done an excellent job with the leadership off the court, as well as on the court. We'll have good senior leadership.
How will Mustafa play a role on the court with the leadership?
We're going to have the ball in his hands more than we did last year. Last year, whoever came down with the rebound led the break. This year, we'll use a dribble outlet with our perimeter guys because it's quicker, but once it's dribbled out the ball is going to be put in Mustafa's hands because I think he does the best job of making decisions.
How do you feel about being fired up about this job, having been here for so long?
I do what I do because I enjoy working with the players. There are off-season things that I would like to defer to someone else. When it comes to the start of practice, that's why I started coaching, and that's why I'm still coaching. Channing said that you can do this until you're 130, and then they can pull you out in a wheelchair. Well, I'll tell you when I'm 130 how I feel about that. The guys on the court know that I'm into it, and that this is what I enjoy doing. Pete Williams (1983-85) and John Edgar (1984-86) came in with their sons last weekend for Midnight Madness and came to practice the next day. They said it doesn't look like anything's changed, still the same demands and the same organization.
How do you feel physically?
I work out everyday, so I feel good. How old you are is a state of mind as much as anything else. I'm blessed, at this point, that my health is good and that I have a lot of energy.
The freshmen look like they're the best looking (physically) guys you've had in a while.
Obviously they're built well. Surprisingly, Mohamed (Tangara) has not had much work with the weights, so that has been an adjustment for him. The other guys, by nature, are put together well, and they're all competitors, so they're used to pushing themselves.
How do the big guys inside look?
Channing is much stronger. Kirk is up like 21 pounds from when we started last year. I'm not sure how much Ivan has gained from the end of last year, but physically, he's much stronger.
Any thoughts on lineup combinations?
I really don't know yet. We've been trying different guys and Daniel (Dillon) has been playing some. We've had Jesus Verdejo (in there) some. You saw in the Midnight Madness that Salim is much more effective if he's at a two-guard spot. Even though he can run the point, we can't afford to lose what he can bring us at the wing position.
If everybody stays healthy, would you want to redshirt any players?
I'll tell you in about three weeks. I wouldn't want to say anything right now because it's up to what we see in the practice situation in terms of guys who are going to log major time.
You have three weeks until the beginning of exhibition, some coaches are lobbying to begin Oct. 1. Are you one of those guys who wants that?
One of the things that I've proposed is that when they first get here it would be nice to have a week with them as soon as schools starts, so you don 't have so much wasted time in pick up games. I had major interference (with that proposal) from the schools that don't start until September, and you can certainly understand as to why they'd object to that. I'd have to think about it more in terms of starting earlier. Pick-up games are great opportunities to develop bad habits. If there was some way we could solve that problem, (maybe) we could work with up to four guys on the court, but you can't really get the team concept across. There are some things that are being proposed now by the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches). One of which is, if somebody is here in summer school, we should be given the same opportunity for the two hours a week (for individual workouts), at least, like we can once school starts.
If we can do that with freshman who can now come in on scholarship for the summer school before their first year starts, that's an important proposal. One of the problems that we have to take a look at now, take Ivan, for example, with the Serbian Junior Team. They might have two practices a day where they're working on fundamentals in the morning and in the afternoon or evening on team things. If you look at the U.S. players and the foreign players and you talk to the NBA scouts, they'll tell you that the foreign players are fundamentally much better. Somehow or another, we have to do something with our rules, probably not just on the college level, but on the high school level, that our players need to be worked with more on fundamentals. The game was invented here, but people are playing it more efficiently than our teams. That doesn't mean that physically we don't have better athletes, but their athletes are fundamentally better.
You have players from five different nations on your roster. What kind of challenges does that bring?
It's a big adjustment for Ivan. This was the first spot that he landed in the States. Jesus Verdejo played high school ball in Miami, and played prep school in Massachusetts, so he's been here since he was a young guy. Mohamed attended a number of high school years here, as well. Daniel played high school ball in Kentucky last year, so I'm not sure that it's the case that they haven't adjusted to living in the States.
The talent level of foreign players has improved. When you started here could you find guys internationally at that level?
The international thing has changed a lot. The international players understand now that there are a lot of international players in the NBA, that the doors are open for them. That was not the case before. I think a year ago, the count was somewhere around 56 foreign kids in the NBA, which is substantial.
Charles Barkley said it best this summer at the Jordan camp I worked when he said that when they went over [to Barcelona] with the Dream Team all the other teams were so excited to see them. He said the other players had their cameras out and wanted pictures with everybody. He said that four years later we came back and no one asked for a picture, they were there to beat us.
There's a totally different attitude on the part of the foreign kids. They can see, by the way they've played against U.S. teams that they belong and they have a great opportunity. The NBA has a lot of scouts internationally. We're trying to find the best players and people that we can find. These are guys that want to be here and are good enough to be here.