Rick Pitino talks Kentucky Derby, Final Four and 2013-14's prospects
HAMPTON, Va. -- After not sleeping for more than 50 hours after Louisville won the national title, Rick Pitino was so tired and emotional he cried tears of joy watching the second-half of the Cardinals' game on television. It's been a whirlwind for Pitino since Louisville cut down the nets, including a trip to the tattoo parlor for some commemorative ink on his back.
Rested and relaxed at the Nike EYBL Tournament last weekend, Pitino sat down with SI.com to talk about his hopes for Louisville next season, how he plans to spend the off season and why college basketball needs a David Stern. But on the top of his agenda is the Kentucky Derby. Pitino has a five-percent stake in 5-1 shot Goldencents, which will run in the Kentucky Derby this weekend.
SI.com: You didn't do the talk show circuit after you won. Why not?
Rick Pitino: I turned down everything. I went to the women's game the next day. I went without sleep for 50-something hours. I was on Bourbon Street with our staff, and when these guys were playing pool I watched the second half of our game on TV. When Chane Behanan grabbed three rebounds on that one possession, I was so tired I started crying tears of joy.
SI.com: Tell me the story about Russ Smith coming back, he seemed to flip flop.
RP: Russ was interesting. He was going, and his father made a mistake in tweeting it after the game. Then he wasn't going. I just ignored the whole process. I said 'Russ, I'm coming back and we'll speak next Tuesday.' I e-mailed every NBA player personnel director and got a hold of 11 teams. Basically, I said, 'My player is thinking about going. Give me feedback on what he needs to do to be a first-rounder.' And, 'If he was drafted by you in the second round, would he spend a lot of time in the NBDL?' Those types of questions. I turned the e-mails over to Russ and ultimately he decided that he wanted to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. He said, 'I'm having such a great time right now, why would I go pro?'
SI.com: What does he need to work on?
RP: Russ is one of the strongest guys on our team. He'll take 190 pounds and lift it 20 times. He'll do 38 or 39 pull-ups. He beat Peyton Siva with a 15-pound sandbag on his neck. They want to see two things -- a consistent jump shot and a better assist-turnover ratio.
SI.com: Taking Advil or anything after your new ink? Did it hurt?
RP: Ah, you know. All the guys on the team told me what it was going to be like. Russ exaggerated the most, he said, 'Coach, I'm texting when I get these tattoos'. Chane told me that it hurt. That told me about their personalities a little bit.
SI.com: How excited are you for the Derby?
RP: I'm going to treat this as if I didn't have a horse in the race. I think there's a lot of people hoping their horses get in. For me, it's a social time to spend with my family and friends. I'm going to treat it the same as every other Derby.
SI.com: What's a bigger rush, coaching in the Final Four or having a Derby horse charge down the backstretch?
RP: No comparison. For me, it's a hobby and an enjoyable rush when the horse comes down. But our life is on the line in the Final Four. We realize: A) We may not get back. B) It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's so much different. One is a hobby. The other is your life.
SI.com: You and Kentucky will likely start next season No. 1 and No. 2. Looking forward to that being a big theme of the season, the past two champs?
RP: I don't know about them or for that matter Duke or any other good team. What I know is that two years in a row we're coming off the Final Four. We've proven to do a couple things. We never embrace it. And we try and get better. This team has a lot of guys back who have played in two Final Fours. Russ and Chane have been an integral part of it. Luke Hancock has still not lost an NCAA tournament game. At George Mason when he beat Villanova, he was sick the second game and got food poisoning. He never played. He's never lost an NCAA game. You have the No. 1 juco point guard coming in. You have Wayne Blackshear and Stephan Van Treese coming off two Final Fours. The good thing about it is that they don't embrace it. Chane is always putting something on the board before I come in. He wrote, 'Final Four or Bust.' That's his attitude. Last year he put, 'Nothing less than a national championship.'
SI.com: Can you be better than last year?
RP: I think we can be as good. Over the course of the season we were one of the better defensive teams in the country. At the end of the year, we became a great half-court offensive team. We scored eight more points in the regular season, but we shot a much higher percentage in the tournament.
SI.com: You went on quite a soliloquy after the national title game about what needs to happen to improve play in college basketball. Can you expand on that?
RP: When I was in the NBA, David Stern came into a meeting with Pat Riley, Larry Brown and myself. There was Hubie Brown and a lot of general managers there, too. He said, 'I've had it. We have one team that's scoring over 100. Every other team is below. We've got to do something. You're minds in the game we respect, tell us what to do.' In the end, we all said, 'If you want more scoring you have to call more fouls. You have to get the guys to stop fouling on every play. Once you call more fouls, you'll have freedom of movement.' I went to the Heat game earlier in the year to watch Earl Clark with the Lakers. You can't touch LeBron. And that's a good thing. Now you have freedom of movement and the great players become the stars of the game. They don't get pushed on every play.
Unfortunately, we don't have a David Stern. We don't have a central figure who can say, 'Our game needs improvement.' We had a great final game, Michigan and Louisville. It was the way that college basketball should be played. It reminded me a long time ago when we lost to Duke. It was a great game. Most of the games aren't great games because of all the fouling. Unless they take control of it. The Big East is a prime example. Although I love it and think it's the greatest thing I've ever been part of, the Big East is ugly basketball because of all the fouling.
SI.com: You spend a year in the American Athletic Conference before going to the ACC. What are you expecting?
RP: You'll have enough teams to be a very good league. It's just that no one is going to talk about it. It's going to be awkward for us more than any of the other teams, because no one really wants us. The tournament should be held in Louisville in terms of the arena and fan support, but you know it's not going to be.
SI.com: How good can Chris Jones, your juco guard, be?
RP: He's a great one. He's as good as I've ever recruited in terms of, he's 5-9, 5-10 built like Taquan Dean. He's a fierce competitor. Oh yeah, he's a starter. Hands down. It'll be Russ and him in the backcourt. We have two other freshmen, Terry Rozier and Anton Gill, who are just as good. I think Kevin Ware will be ready. I think.
SI.com: How's Kevin doing?
RP: You know where he is now. He's at the White House Correspondents dinner. They were nice enough to invite him. I was like, 'Man, you are big.' He's doing terrific. I've never seen an injury so devastating, yet change a young man's life for the better. He was very quiet and non-trusting of adults. Now he'll text me and say, 'You're like my second father.' That injury changed his whole life in terms of his communication skills and the courage he shows.
SI.com: Any big plans for the offseason?
RP: The only thing I'm doing is after the Derby, one of my friends is taking 15 of us to Baker's Bay. It's a private island in the Bahamas. I'm going to do some things I've never done in my life, like marlin fish.
SI.com: In this charmed run it got lost a bit that your son got the Minnesota job. How excited are you for him?
RP: I'm excited because of the type of people around him. It's one thing to have a big job, it's another to get one with Norwood Teague and Mike Ellis. They really understand basketball, and that's key. He's going into an environment where these guys really get it. It's not just a promise of a practice facility, they'll get it done.