EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rick Pitino

University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is on the road recruiting for the future but has high hopes for his present team. Pitino sat down with Cardinal Authority for an exclusive interview covering a wide array of topics, including his summer conditioning, the upcoming season, what he expects from certain players, the most improved players and the schedule.

Keep reading to find out what Rick Pitino had to say:

CA: The summer is time for improvement and you seem extremely encouraged by what you have seen from this group. First of all, you have said it's a good group.

Pitino: The last three years have been way out of the norm in terms of unanimously everybody being just a wonderful young person. I have been coaching a long, long time and I have not seen three years in a row like this with the quality of people. They didn't get their just rewards the year before, even after winning 25 games, and this year it just all came together for us. But these are good people.

CA: So, have they improved the way you like to see?

Pitino: Yeah, I think so. I don't like pick-up basketball so we have stayed completely away from pick-up basketball. We tell them to play one-on-one, go through the drills and get into the weight room but do not play pick-up basketball. I think that is a recipe for retarding the progress of every player.

CA: The expectations will be different this year for your team. You have some veterans but still a lot of young players, do you worry about expectations?

Pitino: I think we have been ranked in the top 10 almost every year I have been there but maybe two years. When you are coaching at Louisville or any school like Louisville, you are going to always have high expectations. We didn't worry about people being down on us last year and we're not going to concern ourselves with people being too high on us this year. We're just going to do what we do and that's work extremely hard to get better and block out the outside world from good and bad.

CA: The guys saw what it takes to get to a Final Four last year, how much does being there help this year's group in trying to get back?

Pitino: I think the experience of it all is so dramatically different than anything they have seen that they want to experience it again. But the one thing I can tell you from 30 something years of coaching is that – and North Carolina, Missouri and Duke will attest to this - there are no guarantees to the Final Four. Maybe last year's Kentucky team or my '96 Kentucky team or some of the UCLA teams, but there's nobody in college basketball that can go into next year's season thinking they are going to the Final Four. There are so many things that go into making it there.

CA: Peyton Siva is heading into his senior year. He had a great ending last season after a tough start. What are your expectations for your senior leader and point guard?

Pitino: He came in as a combo guard and he has had a lot of warts that he had to shed to become a true point guard, and now I think he has mastered every skill to becoming a good point guard from running a pick-and-roll to feeding the post, running the break, stop leaving his feet to make plays to keeping his dribble alive in the lane when nothing is there. So, I think he has come full circle to becoming one of the premier point guards in the country in college basketball.

CA: With Gorgui Dieng, a lot of people will be talking about him this season, but he seems to be a kid who just keeps his head down and works hard.

Pitino: Yeah, Gorgui. Those kids who come from Africa to play are a different breed. I would take a whole team full of African kids if I could. They are so humble and so hungry and so eager to improve and Gorgui epitomized all of that.

CA: How good can Gorgui be this season?

Pitino: I think a guy like (freshman) Montrezl (Harrell) is going to be an abrupt climber but I think Gorgui will be one of those players that goes up each week of the season.

CA: Now with Chane (Behanan), he has a great freshman year and there will be more expectations. But will the addition of Montrezl help him become a better player?

Pitino: If Montrezl weren't there, I would be a doubting Thomas on Chane because Chane has to be pushed to reach his potential. He has to work to shoot the basketball with consistency and balance. But Chane is a gamer and if the game is tight and you want a person to make big plays, he's a big play person.

CA: How nice was it to pick up Harrell (who signed with Virginia Tech but was later released from that letter-of-intent) so late in the recruiting process?

Pitino: He's a raw talent. He needs to learn how to play offensive basketball. He needs to learn some skills. When he's running and dunking, rebounding and shot blocking he's as good as there is. But he has to learn a lot more skills to be a good offensive player and that's why he's going to improve so much. But it's one of the best, if it was an early pickup it would have been awesome, so to get him late is even better.

CA: Is Kevin Ware one of the most improved guys? We've heard a lot of people talk about his game and improvement during workouts in the offseason.

Pitino: I equated him last year to a guy in the pros who signs a 10-day contract. He comes in and plays great and people say what is he doing in the minor leagues and then after he's been with you for a while you realize why he was in the minor leagues. Kevin never practiced with us, he didn't know anything and when you don't know anything you look much worse than you really are. So, now he's just getting used to things. He still has to improve his shooting but in all our practices he has been consistently one of the top three players in every single practice.

CA: Wayne (Blackshear) had such a tough year last year with the injuries, but we saw glimpses at the end of the season. Has he progressed like you wanted?

Pitino: Yeah, Wayne's biggest problem is that he had multiple, multiple injuries throughout high school and now in college and his biggest downfall has always been his conditioning. This is the first time in his life that he is under 10 percent body fat. He looks great, he feels great and we expect big things from him. He's a different type of player than we have had there. He has a good nose for the ball and makes good plays.

CA: So you really have two players (Blackshear and Ware) that you expect to contribute who had tough freshmen seasons?

Pitino: Ware, Blackshear and (Luke) Hancock (who sat out last year after a transfer). Our fans haven't seen those three yet. Luke will be fine. He knows how to recover (from a shoulder injury) from it. He is the smartest player (on the team) by far. And then Russ (Smith) is Russ. He gives us a different dimension. He didn't guard anybody as a freshman and becomes the all-time steal leader in the history of the school. That's a pretty big difference. He just brings us a different dimension.

CA: You have a different staff again this year, but you seem pleased with the addition of Kareem Richardson and the return of Kevin Keatts and Wyking Jones. Those guys are really working it on the recruiting trail.

Pitino: This is an outstanding recruiting staff and that's the name of the game. They know they are all in it together. I tell them there's none of 'this is my kid' and 'that's your kid'. We all work as a staff and cross recruit and it's been great. It's an enjoyable staff to be around and they are really working hard.

CA: Any surprises on the schedule?

Pitino: We have gotten screwed every year we have been in the Big East and it will be nothing different because of TV. When TV wants you, you play Syracuse twice and Notre Dame and those teams. Bt it's OK. The one thing I have realized about the Big East is there are no easy nights. We took on the weakest team last year and got killed. You just have to understand that in the Big East and know it helps down the road.

CA: The trip to the Bahamas (early in the season) is going to be tough right out of the gate.

Pitino: It will be great competition and a big test for us. But we will be ready for it. We have a veteran ball club on the court and veteran club off the court. They are very, very mature kids who know how to get up for an opponent, who know how to take things seriously and understand the weight room. This is a very, very mature basketball team.


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