Professor Pitino’s pupils cram for Basketball Culture 2015

Nov 26, 2014 at 3:50 pm
Pre-game huddle
Pre-game huddle Photo by GIL Kamenish

The University of Louisville begins its 101st basketball season with an All-American forward, a twin-jeweled guard tandem, a senior forward who hasn’t been an effective scorer but always plays defense, and two ready-to-go centers. Now, what coach wouldn’t be happy starting a season with that? Three prime-time stars and a supporting cast that covers all five positions on the court?

But Louisville coach Rick Pitino — who isn’t one to downplay his chances when he thinks he’s got them — seems almost uncharacteristically quiet about the flock of Cardinals he will lead into the 2014–15 season and the school’s first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Almost like he’s trying to decide which way things will go. Not so much early, when Louisville takes on high-profile opponents Ohio State, Indiana and Kentucky, but when the real work comes along in January and February league showdowns.

“This team,” says Pitino, “needs to learn.”

And he’s not just talking about learning the plays. Yes, there’s half a bench of freshmen who have to cram a thick playbook of offenses and defenses into a few weeks of practice. But more important to the coach is whether the team buys into something that, were it a book, might be called “The Louisville Way to Truth and Victory, According to Rick Pitino.” That’s something more than about layering muscle onto bodies and sealing dedication into minds. It’s about Marine Corps- level endurance and poise in public. Kind of a mixture of attitude, tradition and hard work that every coach tries to instill into players, but that Pitino has mastered to a coaching science. … Plus “Put it Into the Hole,” the primary ingredient of basketball.

Three years ago, Pitino challenged a U of L team that wasn’t much good at putting it into the hole to play with heart and soul — and that team rallied late in the season to finish strong and make the NCAA Final Four.

The next year, 2013, Pitino knew he held aces and kings — and didn’t mind admitting it. In their drive to the school’s third national championship, the Cardinals skipped cutting down the nets following championships in the Big East Conference Tournament and NCAA Midwest Regional to save their snips for the national championship in Atlanta — when they cut down the only twine they wanted.

A year ago, Louisville launched another late-season run that carried it into the tourney before being sidelined finally by Kentucky. With a little less firepower, Louisville still won 30 games for the third season in a row.

But now it’s a new year, and a new league for Louisville. The ACC now numbers 15 schools, including rival Syracuse from the old Big East, and traditional Tobacco Road stalwarts Duke and North Carolina.

A pretty tough circuit. And even though Louisville opened the season ranked eighth nationally in the Associated Press poll, Pitino says where it ranks later will depend on what it can learn.

“We have pretty much a brand-new team,” says Pitino, noting that just two players (Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell) remain from the championship team of two years ago. “We have built a great culture of winning, capping off with the winningest class in the history of U of L. Now we’re concentrating on building that same culture — and one of the things that becomes difficult is when you have six to seven new players, and a couple are foreign players. It’s not only that you have to get them stronger physically and mentally, but you’re introducing them to a whole new culture.

“The good news is, we have a starting five that’s terrific, really understands the culture — and they’re doing a very good job of developing it through the bench. The bench, right now, is the thing that has to come on the most on our team.”

So the coach is taking a wait and see … no, scratch that. That’s not right. Rick Pitino never waits and sees.

But he is patient. And persistent. Few would doubt the Louisville basketball “culture” will come along, though it needs to hurry, with this being the likely final season for Louisville’s three top players: Montrezl Harrell, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier.

Montrezl Harrell (24)

Harrell is a phenomenon. Pitino brought him along carefully as a freshman in 2012–13, until he suddenly blossomed on his own. That happened one night in New York against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. Louisville appeared headed for defeat until Harrell popped off the bench onto the big stage — suddenly soaring high over tall Orangemen and throwing down thunderous dunks that rocked the game.

Harrell scored 20 points in rallying his older Louisville mates to win going away — and he’s been controlling the airways for Louisville ever since. Last season, Harrell threw down a school-record 98 dunks, and with 141 in just two seasons, is close to passing Pervis Ellison (162) and Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith (156) as the career leader at U of L.

Offcourt, Harrell has come on even stronger. In the Louisville locker room after games, he is a principal speaker for the team, challenging himself and his teammates to bear down and play harder. Reporters in the Louisville locker room would hear team spokesmen Peyton Siva and Russ Smith deftly delivering the team mantra of “dedication.” A few stalls away, Harrell would be saying the same thing forcefully.

Harrell is a master of grabbing an “alley-oop” pass near the basket and slamming the ball through the rim — one of college basketball’s signature plays. The pass doesn’t even have to be perfect. “They throw it up there,” says Harrell. “I’ll take care of it.”

Now a widely known star on a premier team, Harrell was an easy AP pre-season All-American pick. But there may be more to his game now than dunks. The 6-foot-8 junior, with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, has been stepping away from the basket to shoot jump shots. Harrell scored 30 points in Louisville’s season-opening 81–68 victory over Minnesota in the Armed Forces Classic at Borinquen Coast Guard Air Station in Puerto Rico. He sank 9 of 12 shots from the field, with three 3’s and 9-of-12 marksmanship at the free-throw line — a previous no man’s land his first two seasons.

Radio broadcaster Bob Valvano asked Pitino about Harrell passing up the pro draft last year to play another season at Louisville.

“I don’t make that decision, that’s up to him and his family,” Pitino told Valvano. “I told Montrezl, ‘You’re going to be a first-round draft choice. If you want to come back, it would be to work on your jump shot and other things. So when you do go to the NBA, you can play small forward. If you come back, we will make you better just by working on it.’”

Harrell almost vibrates with anticipation.

“This season, it’s going to be great,” says Harrell, noting that he’s particularly excited about Louisville joining the ACC. “It’s gonna be a fun season for me. I come from North Carolina, and I was raised with the ACC. Everything about it is going to be fun, being able to play those teams back home.”

Jones (3) and Rozier (0)

Thinking back, it is difficult to recall a more nicely matched pair of guards at Louisville than Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. The school has a long, long tradition of great guards, and one might begin a list with Darrell Griffith, who enjoyed a pretty fair running mate in Jerry Eaves. In recent seasons, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith starred in various lineup configurations. Over the years, Butch Beard, Jim Price, DeJuan Wheat, Junior Bridgeman and Milt Wagner all enjoyed helpful company in the backcourt. But today’s Jones and Rozier are the pair — ultra slick together.

Pitino says Jones and Rozier have gotten to the point they can switch roles on the fly, with one taking the point and the other the shooting guard position without any command from the bench — and no discernable signals between each other.

“It starts with being around together outside of practice,” explains Rozier, a 6-foot-2 sophomore. “We get to know each other better and better, and that translates into games. It’s something we do in practice, so it comes naturally to do it in games.

“It’s been like that with our team,” Rozier continues. “Having guards that are versatile, Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, [Edgar] Sosa — having two point guards out there makes it easier for everybody. Especially with Chris, he’s a really good one.”

Says Jones: “Every time Terry shoots, you think it’s going in.”

Interesting, too, that Jones and Rozier don’t play alike. They shoot differently, even rebound differently — with Rozier gliding high from the wing at just the right moment to pick off a rebound, while Jones depends on his body strength to bully his way around in the midst of tall timber, which earned Jones the nickname “Mighty Mouse” from Pitino — referencing a TV cartoon character of long, long ago.

“Oh, my, I didn’t even know who it was at first,” says Jones, rolling his eyes. “Coach showed me a video, and I see a little mouse walking around, saving the world, with his cape on, flying everywhere fast. So he explained it to me. I get it, and I can relate to it.”

But it’s probably not his first choice for a nickname. “How can you be a fan of something you don’t even know?” asks Jones. “Then it’s Mighty Mouse — size small.”

But, here he comes to save the day, as the cartoon’s song promises.

“Chris is very, very quick, very strong,” says Pitino. “Five-nine guards — most of the time they’re a detriment, but with him he’s a tremendous asset because he is so strong he can pick you up full court, and he’s so quick you can’t lose him.”

Beyond Rozier and Jones, who both go all out all the time, there’s not a proven substitute to give either a breather.

The role could fall to freshman Quentin Snider, a scoring star at Ballard High School, who is being introduced now to Pitino’s defensive expectations. Snider will probably master that eventually — and he can score. Snider could help the most right away at the 3-point line. The team needs a deadeye.

Another guard possibility is freshman Shaqquan Aaron, from Seattle, touted as the star of the incoming freshman pack. But Aaron, awaiting NCAA approval of eligibility, hasn’t played. In a preseason interview, Aaron impressed this reporter as confident and quietly well spoken. (And he’s probably dying now, awaiting a chance to play.)

What could Aaron bring to the floor? Well, to start with, he’s a whip-thin 6-foot-7 guard who can get his shot and hit it. Aaron averaged 19.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists leading Rainier High (30–1) to a 3A Washington championship.

“What do I do out there? I compete,” Aaron says when asked to offer a glimpse of himself for fans. “I try to play the game. Have fun out there. They’re going to love me because I’m the kind of guy who wants to win.”

Farther along the bench — have you ever noticed how long a Pitino bench can be? — comes Kendall Gill, who has experience and David Levitch, who is getting more. With more height are 6-foot-9 freshman forward Jaylen Johnson, from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and 6-foot-8 sophomore Akoy Agau.

But if most of those guys are question marks, senior starter Wayne Blackshear is not. Oh, some fans see Blackshear as an enigma, a player who has never reached the potential he showed as a leading scorer in Chicago high school basketball.

But this scribe sees Blackshear as a skilled senior who plays because he defends. When — and if — his 3-point shot gets up to the 40 percent hit rate, Blackshear will score plenty. If he doesn’t hit the 3, he will still play defense — which is a big, big deal at Louisville.

Chinanu Onuaku (32)

A year ago, when Louisville announced the signings of a six-player recruiting class, now the freshmen of 2014–15, Pitino said he expected big man Chinanu Onuaku would be the most ready to play right away. And that has proved to be the case. As Louisville opened with four victories, he even started a game.

But it’s more than playing time. The 6-foot-10 center from Lanham, Maryland, is one of those guys who just goes out and plays. A natural.

It’s a thing in basketball. Most incoming college players need a few games, or maybe a season or two, to become effective. And some can’t ever quite make the leap from high school to college ball. A little timid coming up the ramp to the expressway, and the closer they get to the high-speed drive lines, the more they hesitate, looking for their spot.

But that’s not Onuaku — or “Nanu,” as everybody calls him. He rolls up the ramp, hits the gas and glides right into the basketball flow the first time he sees it. There’re guys like that. Recently, Chane Behanan was that way. They threw up the ball for the opening tip ... and Behanan was off to the races.

Onuaku gets into the game, and two seconds later he has his hands on the ball, then grabs a rebound, then beats his man down court on defense. He’s here, then there — in the middle of the game right from the start.

Onuaku starred in high school in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and played on one of those touring AAU teams where every college recruiter saw him. Older sister Ify played at Florida A&M, and brother Arinze played at Syracuse. Providing Louisville fans with a little preview, Onuaku scored seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds, with two blocked shots and a game-high four steals in the 2014 Kentucky Derby Basketball Classic.

“My role is going to be more defensive — blocking shots, overall rebounder,” says Onuaku, who understands those skills play well at Louisville. “I believe we’re going to be a tough team. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go undefeated. We’ll lose a couple games. But we’ll be the kind of team that will bounce back.”

Whether Onuaku starts or comes off the bench may be tied more to Pitino’s “match-up” tactics, a strength of the coach.

In some games, Mangok Mathiang — “Mango” to one and all — will get the call. In contrast to Onuaku, Mathiang is more of a finesse center, with a very nice touch around the basket. But the 6-foot-10 native of the Sudan, who grew up in Australia, isn’t bashful about mixing it up underneath. His best game came against Kentucky, and for the season he blocked a team-best 51 blocked shots.

Plus he’s a team guy, a fun guy. “What are they going to say about me?” Mathiang says, thinking over the question. “I hope they say, ‘He’s the greatest Aussie ever to step foot in Louisville.’”

Of course, the centers don’t end there. Not on a Pitino team. Louisville has four, also counting 7-foot freshman Matz Stockman, of Oslo, Norway, and 7-foot-0 Anas Mahmoud, from Cairo, Egypt.

Mahmoud is further along. He played for the Egyptian national team and has international experience. And he’s fast.

“Yes, but it is not the fastness of speed, it is the fastness of how you move the ball,” says Mahmoud. “On defense, it is the fastness of how you move into position.

“And,” he adds, “I have to get used to the work of the game. The 40 minutes of it. Not just five or 10 minutes.”

Something to learn.

And say! Isn’t that the very theme the coach handed us?