THE MODERATOR: We’ll begin with an opening comment from Coach Pitino and then take questions from the student-athletes. When we’re done with them, we’ll dismiss them and go back to the coach.
COACH PITINO: We’re excited to be in Indianapolis. It’s a short trip for us. I know our fans will be excited about it. This is a great venue for college basketball, and we’re super pumped to be in the NCAA tournament.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the players.
Q. Donovan, can you count how many different defenses you guys have played during the course of the season and how many of those you feel confident in?
DONOVAN MITCHELL: There are a lot. There are a lot of different forms of it, I should say. They’re all pretty much strictly zone, but there’s different forms of it. I couldn’t really count on my hand, but there’s definitely large amount, surplus of defenses we’ve had and we’ve used throughout the entire year.
Q. Donovan and Deng, since you lost in the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, what have practices been like and what have been the focus?
DONOVAN MITCHELL: We looked at that loss, and there were many times where we just were complacent when we got the lead, kind of let up. We fouled a little bit. So in practice, we came back and just came out with tremendous energy. Deng led a bunch of practices with his energy and the way he talked and Mangok and guys who have been there. Coach is always on us talking on defense, and defenses wins championships. And that’s been the main focus throughout the practices.
DENG ADEL: For us, it showed us the urgency we have to play with because we went up there for one game and had to go back home. We kind of felt how bad it felt to lose in the first round and go home. Approaching practices, we just came with a lot of energy, just keying in on the little stuff that lost us the game and just listened to Coach.
Q. Deng, when you have team that has so many guys who shoot the three well, what are the keys to defending that, not giving them open looks?
DENG ADEL: I think just playing with hot hands and taking away their attempt, we know they’re a great shooting team. But we have a lot of size and length, and we can switch on a lot of different occasions, and we just have to make sure we play with a lot of energy and on the catches, be there on the catch.
THE MODERATOR: We’re going to wait for Coach. We’ll continue with the student-athletes and come back to Coach.
Q. How is the urgency different when you’re playing in elimination games than during regular season? Do you feel any differently? Do you prepare any differently?
DENG ADEL: Well, if you lose, that’s it. In the regular season, you always have another game you can bounce back off. If you lose, that’s it. We’re going back to workouts.
It’s going to be tough for our guys, especially the seniors, guys like Tony Hicks at the tournament level, it hurts for them. We make sure we go out there and just play for our brothers.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the players? Okay, guys, you’re dismissed.
Now for Coach Pitino.
Q. Rick, Ray Harper was in here earlier and said that you saw more defenses from his team than he’s seen. I think his exact quote was he’s seen some that I don’t even know we do.
He also credited you with being — having the ability to figure things out like no one else.
What is it about your approach to postseason, particularly, that has made you so successful, even a higher winning percentage than regular season?
COACH PITINO: Well, we try to build to this point all season. As I’ve stated many times to the Louisville media, we started out a very inexperienced basketball team. We had our leading scorer coming back was nine points a game in Quentin Snider. This is the most difficult team I’ve coached since being a head coach in terms of teaching fundamentals and all the nuances that make a defense successful or an offense successful.
The great thing about these guys, they’re so willing to learn. We kept getting better week by week. In the last ten days, I’ve seen significant improvement. That’s what you want going into the tournament is you want to build up to improvement going into March.
I think these guys are ready for the challenge. We didn’t get too down about the Duke loss. We just worked on the things we needed to work on.
Sometimes it’s a good lesson because you’re so fired up to go to Brooklyn, and all of a sudden, it’s over. You’re returning home. We wanted to stay an extra day and practice and experience New York a little bit, and we just headed back and didn’t get a chance to do that.
So it is a good experience when you lose, and you have that feeling of emptiness.
Q. Rick, you guys have a much better seed, obviously. How do you try to make sure your guys have the proper urgency, the proper motivation to beat a team you’re a big favorite against?
COACH PITINO: We don’t pay any attention to lines or seeds. We just pay attention to what the other team runs, how to stop it, where they may be vulnerable for us to score.
We know enough — you know, this year, a long, long time ago, and I took his advice, God rest his soul,
Howard Gar-Finkel said to me, when I just became a young head coach, he said, let me tell you what Everett Case used to say when you have an inexperienced team. I interrupted him and said who is Everett Case? He said I was a birddog for him back in the day at NC State. He said take an inexperienced team, put the toughest schedule you can muster to them, and you’ll know come March if you have a good team, if they survived that schedule.
We played the number one ranked schedule in that year and the kids have survived and made that competition, made us better, but along the way, we gave the same effort with every single opponent we have played. I think the guys have tremendous respect for Jacks State. We don’t talk about where they’re seeded. We just talk about what they do well.
As a coaching staff, we have great respect for what Ray does. I’ve coached against him many times, and they’re very sound defensively, very sound offensively. And they’re shooting the ball great, much better than at any point in the season the last four games.
Q. Coach, you have five assistants in this tournament with teams. Is Mike Balado ready to take the next step? His name’s been mentioned with Arkansas State. Is it fair to say he’s ready to make the jump?
COACH PITINO: I have a philosophy with assistant coaches. I’ve had it for a long time. I had it with Hubie Brown when I worked with him. Back then, it was one assistant on the bench and Richie Adubato was faxing me all the plays of the other team. Every practice, Hubie challenged me to act like a head coach. And every day, he’d come to me and say what do you have for me today. He wanted innovative ideas, new things to come up with, new plays. He wanted new ideas and God forbid if you didn’t have an idea behind that.
I do the same thing with Ralph Willard, Kevin Willard, Mik Cronin, Tubby Smith, now Kevin Keatts. I’m leaving out Reggie Theus. I said Mik. All these guys, I challenge them to act like a head coach, bring new ideas every single day.
Even with my son, I never forget this, we were getting ready to play Florida, and he said, dad, is it okay if somebody takes a scout before that game? He said, my eyes are bloodshot. I need to focus in on that. I said get Visine. You’re doing every scout and don’t say it again.
I was so tough on my son to do every single scout, which I’ve never done before, the same way Hubie was on me. I think it pays off because Mike Balado right now is at the same level as all the guys I just mentioned because he came in a very hungry, enthusiastic, hard working coach, and now he’s learned a certain point to take over his own job.
He’s more than ready. I just want him to make sure — I don’t want him to leave. I want him to stay, same thing with Kenny and David. I want to make sure he takes the right job because certain guys sometimes take the wrong job.
It’s a long-winded answer.
Q. Rick, you guys missed out on this last year. What’s it like to be back?
COACH PITINO: It’s always my favorite time of year. When I was in the pros, I missed it terribly. All the guys on the bus in the pros were talking about what team they’re picking. It’s just an exciting time of year.
You realize it’s Russian Roulette, anybody can beat you on a given night. You don’t shoot well. They shoot great. You can get beat.
It’s not always the best team because it’s not a series, so it’s a lot of fun. So many prognosticators picking. My wife texted me this morning and said this person’s picking you to go to this, this person — I said yeah, I just worked out at the Y, and somebody was telling me we were going to go far. That guy at the Y is every bit as good as the people you just mentioned.
So everybody’s got an opinion. Nobody’s ever right. Nobody has that bracket. I think ESPN’s up to ten million brackets right now, and I always tell a funny story, because when I was in the pros, I did a horrible job with the bracket. We had a neighborhood in New York, everybody filled out their brackets and this guy, Angelo, won the bracket because Angelo picked Valpraiso to go far because you get so many points to go with your seed. He was from Italy. He thought Valpraiso was an Italian university. That was when Drew was making those shots. It’s a matter of luck. It’s a lot of fun.
It’s the most fun time because Super Bowl is very big in our country, but it’s two teams. If you’re not a fan of those two teams, you want to tune in and watch it, but there are so many fans of every school waiting to be Cinderella, waiting to get to the Final four. To me, it’s just a magical time.
Mascots, that’s a good way too.
Q. Rick, when you come out of a long conference season, do you change your routine, your approach when you have only a few days to prepare for an unfamiliar foe?
COACH PITINO: We don’t change our approach to scouting, but we change our approach to how we address the game. And that’s something between our team and coaching staff, the way we approach it. But we don’t change in terms of scouting and preparation and what we’re going to do.
Q. (No microphone)?
THE MODERATOR: Risk of overload if we give them too much.
COACH PITINO: With this team, you don’t want to give them too much. This is a team that worked very hard, but you don’t want to give them too much. It’s not their strength.
Q. Coach, just big news out of the Big Ten, Tom Crean fired earlier today. Your reaction to this time of year with the hirings and firings and how hard it is to win in college basketball.
COACH PITINO: It’s the thing I don’t like about the business when you see someone who works as hard as Tom get fired. I thought when I took over University of Kentucky, it was as low as it could possibly get in every aspect until Tom Crean took over Indiana was even lower. We were on probation for two years, but Tom Crean took over a team that couldn’t win, period. He took it from the bottom to winning a couple of conference championships.
The good thing about it is everybody in our business knows that Tom is an outstanding teacher, coach, workaholic, and he’ll land on his feet. So it’s not always that way for other coaches. So Tom has done a great job at Indiana. They were probably both ready for a change, and Tom will land on his feet and be better than ever.
Q. Coach, you mentioned you have the number one strength of schedule. Who is the best team you played?
COACH PITINO: Well, interesting enough, the most difficult team for us is Virginia. And I was having lengthy conversations with Kevin Keatts, he called me and said I need to know how to play Virginia. I said call Notre Dame, don’t call me.
But we talked at length about how we should beat Virginia. Virginia’s tough for us because you have to beat them off the bounce. You can’t run offenses necessarily. The most physically talented team, there’s a lot of them. You name, Kentucky, Indiana was great before they had all the injuries. Kentucky is terrific. Baylor is terrific. Wichita State is terrific. We played them. Purdue is terrific. Played them. Duke and Carolina and Virginia and Notre Dame.
I can’t tell you — Virginia’s the best defensive team, Notre Dame and Duke are the best offensive team. Carolina is the best break team, best rebounding team. So they have so much talent that it depends on match-ups. Match-ups are a big deal in the NCAA.
Q. Rick, I’m not trying to draw parallels between Louisville and Syracuse. They’re on postseason ban, go to the Final Four. Postseason ban, obviously you’re in a better position. Talking about it being a magical time, what did you miss the most about not participating a year ago?
COACH PITINO: Well, it happened late, so we didn’t anticipate it, all the penalties. We played this year without two scholarships, basketball players. It’s made our backcourt really — our backcourt lacks depth.
One of the difficult things about the game against Duke is Snider and Donovan were taken out of the game because of phantom fouls, like Barry from North Carolina was taken out with a phantom foul. Those things happen both ways, against you and for you.
We don’t have depth, but the difficult thing about last year was our culture as a basketball team, especially in the humility department, was changed tremendously by Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. That’s what hurts. Those guys transferred to Louisville to play in the NCAA tournament, and they never got a chance to play.
But they did change the culture of our basketball team becoming a very humble group.
Q. Rick, Tim alluded to your postseason record. Aside from talent, is there one thing in particular in your experience that you feel like a team has to have to do well in this tournament?
COACH PITINO: Well, different teams that you coach, when I coached the ’96 team at Kentucky, the most important thing was to just keep them grounded and humble because I felt the only way we could lose with that team was to beat themselves.
With the 2013 team that won a championship, I felt we had to confuse people with our defenses. So every team brings different things to the table. This team is far different than any team I’ve coached.
And the thing I’m trying to do with this basketball team is get them relaxed, get them to have fun because there’s very few of these guys who have competed in the tournament. Though the schedule has prepared us for the competition, suddenly they have the media around, they’re talking constantly, they’re looking at — they turn on ESPN and everybody has an opinion.
So the time is different for these guys, and they’re not used to it. We went to a Final Four in ’12, and those guys, like Villanova is today, are so hungry to get back because they tasted that in their mouth. This team hasn’t tasted that yet. It will be interesting to see how they respond tomorrow.
Q. Coach, I don’t know if you’ve gotten to know John Brannen at all, but up at Northern Kentucky, maybe from afar, taking a first-year eligible program, nine wins a year ago, to the tournament this year, again, I’m not sure if you know him, remember him playing against your ’96 team under Billy, but just thoughts on the job he does or how difficult that is.
COACH PITINO: Enjoy him. He’ll be gone if he gets one win. No, I’m kidding.
You know, it’s not easy. It’s just the same as Grand Canyon’s going through now. It’s not easy to build a program that way, and I’m really impressed with what he’s done. It’s exciting to see for Northern Kentucky.
It must be really exciting for them to be playing the University of Kentucky in some forms, but it’s a great tribute to those guys. They’re going to get a big taste of the NCAA tournament, play against one of the premiere, storied traditions in all of basketball. They’re from the same state. It’s going to be very exciting for them. He’s done a fabulous job.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Coach.
COACH PITINO: Thank you.