Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/29/2008 06:27:00 PM
Elite Eight Q&A With ... Memphis' Pierre Niles
Pierre Niles averages 0.8 points per game off the bench for top-seeded Memphis.
HOUSTON -- The blog's Q&A routine has changed for the NCAA tournament. After running through a series of stars over the past two seasons -- everyone from Texas A&M's Acie Law IV to to Vandy's Shan Foster -- the focus has turned to the reserves. On Friday we ran our first-ever walk-on Q&A, with Texas' Ian Mooney, and today's subject is Memphis' Pierre Niles, a sophomore forward who averaged 0.8 points in 4.3 minutes per game this season, and at 310 pounds, gives the Tigers some serious muscle off the bench when needed. Niles, whose real first name is Jartavious, is one of two native Memphians on the Tigers' roster. He earned cult fame in the college hoops world in February, when, during a fracas following Memphis' 79-78 win at UAB, he slapped an unruly fan wearing a Larry the Cable Guy costume. We caught up with him in the locker room on the day before the Tigers' Elite Eight showdown with Texas.
Luke Winn: You're usually wearing headphones during these interview sessions, and then I've heard you loudly singing rap lyrics from time to time. What songs are you belting out?
Pierre Niles: It's just local rap -- Yo Gotti. Well, he's not local anymore. He signed with Cash Money [Records] last year. That's my favorite rapper, so every time in the locker room or on the bus, I've always gotta listen to him to get my mind right.
LW: You've been listening to him since when he was just local, though?
PN: I've been listening to him ever since he first came out in Memphis, my seventh- or eighth-grade year. And as the years got on, he's been getting bigger and bigger. I've got all of his CDs on here [holds up his iPod].
LW: The style of Memphis hip-hop is ... what?
PN: It's hype. Something you can dance to, get crunk to. A lot of my teammates don't like it because they're from up north. They like music they can get laid back to. But I'm from Memphis, so I like something I can get hyped to, get my mind right. Like, D-Rose [Derrick Rose], he'll listen to some Kanye West, because he's a laid-back guy, not a hype guy.
LW: You've got "North" and "Memphis" tattooed on either forearm, from your old neighborhood. Is Hustle and Flow, like, an accurate look at Memphis?
PN: Yeah, I'm from that hood, North Memphis, and then I've got Andre Allen over there [across the locker room], he's from South Memphis. So when they made that movie, we'd look at stuff and be like, we've been there -- to the skating rinks, to the streets that they was on.
LW: Have you been on the Internet and seen the montage someone made -- with Whoop That Trick from Hustle and Flow playing, and you slapping that fan at UAB? [It's here, but the lyrics are explicit.] That's almost like your own music video.
PN: [Laughing.] I ain't seen it until Andre Allen came to me and told me it was up on MySpace. So they showed it to me then, that somebody had put that together.
LW: Was that the craziest game you've ever been in as a player, with the crowd in Birmingham acting like it did, almost like a riot?
PN: It wasn't the craziest game. But the fans were just disrespectful, throwing beer, spitting on us, and all kinds of stuff like that. Stuff that wasn't called for. And one of the players got in my face and called me some words. So I just retaliated.
LW: And that fan in the orange jumpsuit?
PN: He was just pointing in my face and calling me different names. I ain't the type of dude to let somebody say something to my face, and point in my face, so I did something about it.
LW: Have you ever seen Larry the Cable Guy, the comic that the fan was dressed like?
PN: Never seen him. But I've heard about him.
LW: What has it been like, to see Derrick Rose kind of turn into one of the stars of this NCAA tournament? That double-pump reverse he had last night against Michigan State was pretty amazing.
PN: There's a lot of freshmen out there -- you've got O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley -- but I don't see none of them doing what Derrick Rose is doing. He carried us out of a drought last night, he came back in, picked the game up, and that man carried us all the way. He's got something special in him.
LW: And Rose's dunk? What about that?
PN: He said he was going to stop laying the ball up this tournament. And he showed that last night. He ain't playing around no more. Everyone was saying to him, "You've got too much hops to just be trying to lay the ball up." So he during the conference tournament that he'd start dunking in the [NCAA] tournament, and last night, he got that fastbreak, and he did something real nice with it.
LW: Derrick calls what Chris Douglas-Roberts does -- the crossovers and floaters and such -- "old-man moves." What do you call them?
PN: I just call them sweet. He's so sweet with the ball, smooth with it. He can play like an old man, but I don't think an old man would have the moves he's been doing. To be honest with you, other than Thad Young, my old AAU teammate, CDR is one of my favorite players I've ever played with.
LW: In your scouting report of Texas, what do you guys plan to do to counteract the fact that their big men are on the perimeter a lot?
PN: I think it's just Damion James. That's just one player we have to worry about. [Connor Atchley] can shoot it a little bit, but the only one we have to worry about is James. He's a real good player.
LW: Texas sort of has a version of you in Dexter Pittman, the 299-pound guy who comes off of its bench. How would that matchup work, if you were pitted against him?
PN: It would be a good matchup. I don't know if he's bigger than me. I think I'm kind of faster than him, and can jump higher than him, so I'd like to see it play out. We played against each other in AAU once, and we beat them.
LW: I assume you end up battling a lot with Joey Dorsey in practice. How does that go?
PN: We go against each other a lot. Coach wants [Dorsey] to match up with me because I'm big and physical, and he thinks I can help Joey out. Plenty of practices he'll have the best of me, and in plenty I'll have the best of him. Sometimes coach will call practice off if we're really going at it. Like, Joey will dunk on me or I'll dunk on him. Coach Cal called it off one time after I dunked on Joey -- just blew the whistle and said, practice over, practice over, so we just brought it in.
LW: What kind of tricks does Joey use to get position for rebounds? And how do you get in his head?
PN: He's just big and physical, and he's got quick feet. He ain't like the big men who can't move. If you look at him he's like a power forward. He's just playing the five because we don't have a real five. Joey is real strong and he gets real low in position. If you want to get in his head, though, just keep talking to him, checking him, keeping him unfocused.
LW: What's your best Joey story from the past few years?
PN: Last year, in San Antonio [for the Elite Eight] we were having a water fight in the hotel -- it's a normal thing, we just had one in Little Rock, too -- and he was throwing cups of water at people. Well, Joey peeked out his door, and I think it was Willie or Andre, they had filled up this big thing of hot water out the tub. Joey looks out, and they threw the bucket in his face, and he started screaming and hollering and running down the hallway, jumping up and down like a monkey. That was the funniest thing last year.
Day 17: The First Walk-On Q&A, With Texas' Ian Mooney
Ian Mooney shoots a jumper in Texas' practice on Thursday at Reliant Stadium.
Jim Sigmon/University of Texas
The Blog's two-season series of player-and-coach (but mostly player) Q&As has featured such luminaries as Roy Hibbert and Rick Majerus, but we've never before interviewed a walk-on. That changed today, as the subject is Texas senior forward Ian Mooney, who shares a name with the former host of WWF's Wrestling Spotlight and, unlike most walk-ons, had three double-digit-minute games this season, averaging 0.3 points on the season. Mooney wears the No. 22 in honor of his late brother, Brendan, and transferred from St. Louis to Texas after one year as a walk-on with the Billikens. Longhorns point guard D.J. Augustin says Mooney "sets the best screens" on the team, and strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright warns onlookers not to dismiss Mooney as unathletic because of his stocky Irish frame. "He might look like he's been drinking for three days, or that he just fell off the potato truck," Wright says of Mooney, "but he can really jump. Seriously, he'll throw down dunks."
We caught up with Mooney in the 'Horns' locker room before their Friday practice:
Luke Winn: You went from being a walk-on as a sophomore, to a scholarship guy last season [when a gap was left by Daniel Gibson leaving early], back to being a walk-on. That's an interesting back-and-forth.
Ian Mooney: I just take what comes my way. I had a scholarship fall in my lap, and now I'm back to just doing what I do, walking on.
LW: Did you earn the full ride last year by harassing Kevin Durant in practice? [Coach Rick Barnes had said that Mooney guarded Durant "better than anyone."]
IM: I think they kind of had some extra [scholarships] lying around last year, but I'm fine with the Durant angle.
LW: And you've already graduated?
IM: I graduated this past summer in corporate communications. It's like communication studies in corporate situations -- doing sales presentations, things like that. And I'm in grad school now, for advertising, which is pretty tough. That's fine, though -- I'd rather do advertising than be taking basket weaving or doing the Leinart plan.
LW: What's the University of Texas equivalent of a ballroom-dancing class?
IM: I took a semester of piano once, and that was my fine-arts credit. I don't know if that was as bad [as ballroom dancing], but our homework was singing in class and practicing our stuff.
LW: You've seen some serious time in a few games this year [against TCU and St. Mary's in January]. How did that come about?
I think coach [Rick Barnes] just kind of got frustrated with some of the guys, and gave me a shot. We were playing against TCU and they had undersized big men, and our guys were having trouble with it. Coach gave me a shot, I did well, and found a couple more minutes the next game, which was cool.
[Note: In order to conduct this interview, Mooney took a break from playing a white-board game with teammates Matt Hill and Damion James that was essentially Pictionary for movie titles. Mooney is the one drawing in the photo below.]
Where did you come up with that game? And which movies did you draw?
IM: I brought it over from high school [at St. Michael's in Austin], but it just started today because we've been bored like crazy. We just needed to pass the time. I did Courage Under Fire -- you see, the lion without the heart from Wizard of Oz, and then the fire? It's supposed be be flip-flopped, but it's there. Then I did Camelot, drawing camels in a parking lot. [He also did Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, with a pot of honey and some small stick figures, and Hill drew Next Friday by using a calendar.]
IM: We first got it started with Guitar Hero. One of the managers brought it in, and then we convinced him to get another guitar -- and then we made him keep the guitars in the lounge, because we were playing it so much. Then Rock Band came along and the next thing you know, we had a band. D.J. is good at drums, because he played in middle school, and Clint [Chapman] is probably the best at guitar. Justin [Mason] is on the mic. He sings the classic rock. Very adequately.
LW: D.J. is pretty well-covered in the press. What doesn't get out there about him?
IM: He jokes a lot, but he knows how to turn it on and off. One second he'll make fun of you, and then be like, "Hi, Mrs. Mooney!" [to your parents]. I don't know how creatively funny he is, but he's very good at either reiterating what you say and making fun of it, or changing what you say. That and calling you out. Anytime you get a new haircut, he'll be the first one to say it's ugly. Or if you show up wearing, like a polo shirt, and look pretty preppy, he'll call you out.
LW: Who pulls most of the pranks?
IM: Well, D.J. just threw a cup of water in Dex's [Dexter Pittman's] face right before film yesterday. And Harrison likes to hide under the table [pointing to a locker-room table with a tablecloth that hangs down to the floor] and grab people's legs as they walk by. Beyond that ... there aren't a ton.
LW: Since you're always guarding them in practice, what has it been like to see Connor Atchley and Damion James kind of blossom into big-time players this year?
IM: The main thing that happened with Connor is, he realized that he had to do it, first of all -- that the team had to have him come a long way and be good this year. Once he started gaining confidence, the players started giving him the confidence back, and he realized that he always had the skill set. That's why he got recruited. Once he figured out that he didn't necessarily have to be huge, strength-wise, to play well, he did it.
For Damion, I just think he fits more comfortably this year. Last season coach had him running the three or four every other game, and now he's kind of locked up in the four at the beginning of every game, and transitioning out of it. The game isn't as fast for him anymore, and he understands it better. That, and for a lot of these guys, there's a lot less frustration in their second year on defense. Coach would always ride us about our defense last year, and now that we have a solid team foundation on defense, no one is as frustrated, and you can focus on other aspects of your game.
LW: Being the only grad student, are you like a grandfather figure on the team sometimes?
IM: Sometimes I am the elder, I get up on my hickory stump every once in a while, and do my rants and raves. But I'm also the go-to-guy, like the encyclopedia when the guys need random information. We'll be on the road and they'll be like, 'Mooney, what's over there? Or, what's the capital of Denver?'
[While Mooney is laughing about accidentally saying 'The capital of Denver,' teammate J.D. Lewis chimes in with a story about abusing their sage status to trick Pittman into believing that the Hollywood sign was in New York. While playing in New Jersey for the Legends Classic, they told him he had just missed the sign from the bus, and Pittman said, "I see it! I see it!"]
LW: You've been to more NCAA tournaments than anyone in here. Does the experience change every time?
IM: This will be my third, and every time it's different because as you get older, you better understand what's at stake. Now, every game could technically be my last game ever. It's weird to think about that.
[Lewis interjects to say, "No way, dude. There's the YMCA."]
IM: Yeah, there is the YMCA. I have one year of school left, and I'm from Austin, so I'll be staying there and chilling. And dominating the rec leagues.
LW: You won't have coach Barnes riding you in rec-league games. What are his rants like this year?
IM: He goes on kicks where he'll try to be funny, to call out guys in the middle of film with some kind of punchline. He'll pause the tape sometimes and just be like, "Wow, Mooney, you're really athletic." Or the other day in practice, he was talking about something [negative] and just said, "That would be like Mooney running the point." He'll be acting really serious, and then drop in a jab, and you'll be like, "Is that a joke? What's going on here, coach?"
LW: What would it be like, if you actually ran the point?