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NCAA Elite 8 Press Conference Transcript: Louisville (March 28, 2009)

Saturday, March 28, 2009 , Posted by Christopher Byrne at 8:39 PM, under , ,

Athens, GA (Mar 28, 2009) -The Elite Eight comes to a close tomorrow. Here is the transcript of the University of Louisville press conference, as provided by the NCAA.

BILL BENNER: We're joined by Louisville student-athletes and head Coach Rick Pitino. We'll take an opening statement from Coach Pitino.

COACH PITINO: Well, we're very excited. We were in the same situation last year and fell short of everybody's dream to get to a Final Four. So we're very excited to be playing a great Michigan State team. We realize that it will be a lot more difficult to get open shots tomorrow. We'll be playing against very intense man-to-man defense. We're going against, rebounding margin-wise, the number one rebounding team in the country. Our players understand what they're up against and we look forward to the challenge.

Q. Rick, could you discuss Samardo's development as a player in terms of where he is now and where he was when he first joined your program.

COACH PITINO: Well, Samardo was very well-coached in high school, but if he wasn't dunking the basketball, he played below the rim. That's generally a product of going against people who are a lot smaller than you.

So the first thing he had to learn is how to make moves above the rim and get over people. He's always been a good duck-in guy. So it's been a gradual, slow improvement.

He's also improved dramatically with his passing skills. That's probably his biggest improvement, is in passing. And he still has so much room for growth. He's going to become a better rebounder, a better defensive player. Next year he'll play a little more at the power forward spot offensively. He's had slow, gradual improvement from the first day of practice to now.

Q. Coach, obviously the Big East has had a great season, is still doing fairly well. What was your reaction to Louisville joining the Big East? You'd been there already.

COACH PITINO: Well, it's interesting because I'm not sure that if Louisville was in the Big East prior to coming I would have taken the job because I wanted to try something different, experience some things I'd never experienced before.

Went into Conference USA, a pretty strong conference, Cincinnati, Memphis, Marquette, DePaul was better than they've of late. When Tom said, Can you call Mike and see about us getting in the Big East, it would really help us football-wise so we could play for a national championship in football. I thought about it, and when I made the phone call, Michael said to me, Rick, Louisville will never be in the Big East in our lifetime. That was his remark. I'll never forget it, because the defections did not take place yet.

Tom Juritz, because he's so into football, he knew firsthand that the defections were coming. I said these teams may drop out. He said, I don't think so. About two weeks later Michael called me back and said Louisville is a great fit in the Big East. It was great for football for us. We got to the Orange Bowl because of it, won it. It's been much better than I ever anticipated basketball-wise because the last five years we've been the number one revenue producer in college basketball. That would not have been possible if we were not in the Big East, even though we always sold out, even though we had a lot of thingsBold go well for our program. It was much better than I ever anticipated.

Q. Coach, when we first got here you had joked around saying that you hoped Boston was more interested in your son than you. Do you think your son is ready for his first head coaching job? What was it when you were at the same age when you were ready?

COACH PITINO: I was only joking. It was just tongue-in-cheek.

Q. Do you think he's ready?

COACH PITINO: Do I think he's ready? You know, it's like anything else, he's young but extremely experienced. I'm real proud of him. I think all three of my assistants are ready to be head coaches.

Richard is very unique because when he was in college, he didn't go through what everybody else went through. He went through his first two years as an assistant varsity coach at St. Andrews as a college student. His next two years he worked for Tim Welch as a graduate assistant while he was in college. He had four years of coaching. Then he went to Charleston to be a GA and went to Northeastern as a full-time, to Duquesne as a full-time. So he's young. If somebody wants a young assistant, he's certainly capable of doing the job.

But that's if they want it. To tell you the truth, as I was saying tongue-in-cheek, he's, I think, the best young recruiter in the country. He's doing things for our program. I would be really upset at him if he left, to take a head coaching job, and I may just cut him strictly out of the will (smiling).

Q. Terrence, can you talk about the development of Samardo, not just him, but Terrence Jennings.

TERRENCE WILLIAMS: Uhm, my perspective would probably be different than Coach P, because he's the coach.

But Samardo, he's always been good to me when he came. The way he catches the ball and how long his arms are, it helps out a lot. As far as ducking in players, he's strong, so can't get around him. I tried to guard him before also, and it doesn't work.

The little things like the rebounding, he knows that he has to pick that up. But he came in, you know, one of the best high school players in America, All-American, all that, and he still wanted to work. You know, I never seen a guy that was so young stay after and always want to shoot jumpers at the end of practice and play one-on-one and get better. He wanted to learn more. You know, he wasn't big-headed. That's what I liked about him.

Terrence Jennings was probably one of the worst as far as shooting-wise, like foul shots, on the team, and became one of the most reliable foul shooters. So his growth has came about well this year. He blocks shots, good jumper, good rebounder. Shows you how much the growth is from high school to college in one year. These guys are going to be great players in the future.

Q. The Michigan State players were talking about the War drills they do, literally 10 on 10, put on football pads. I wonder what's the toughest drill you do?

ANDRE McGEE: Oh, man, toughest drill? It's hard to think of anything that can simulate that. But our practices are just like full-bore games. Coach doesn't say 20 to 30 minutes in between practice to sit down and go through long dissertations of talking to us. Our practices are up-and-down, fast-paced. We're pressing the whole time. It's just like a game, playing every day. So that's how we get used to, you know, our game style of play. We just get after it every single day.

EARL CLARK: Same thing Andre said. We come to play. We come every day in practice. We just go hard. We don't put no football pads on, but we got some tough guys and we gonna be ready.

Q. Kalin Lucas obviously is a very gifted ball handler. Is the idea of your guys pressure to maybe not necessarily turn the game in the first 10 minutes, but the cumulative effect, the aim is to ultimately prevail? Michigan State seems to have pretty good stamina.

COACH PITINO: Yeah, I think it takes its toll many different ways. Sometimes it speeds up the tempo of the game. Sometimes it allows you to have your run in the middle of the first half. Sometimes it wears people out for the last 10 minutes of the second half.

But, you know, I told the guys today when they look at Michigan State, they're looking at Pittsburgh. We try to identify all the time with a Big East team someone we're playing. And, you know, Michigan State reminds us of Pittsburgh. They're a great rebounding team, great defensive team. They're fundamentally extremely sound.

So, you know, our guys have great respect for everyone. They know what they're up against. The shots are not easy. Don't give you a lot of open looks. So we've got to make sure we take high-percentage shots. There's so much at stake right now. So no matter who you're playing right now, you're going to play a great team. The stakes are so high. We were in this last year.

Q. Jerry, the Michigan State players were talking about how they look forward to playing against your style, running a little bit. What do you think when you hear that?

JERRY SMITH: We like that. Michigan State, they like to slow it down a little bit. But if they want to play the up-tempo style, we're definitely up for that. We like to get on a run, pressure people. That's what we do. That's great for us.

ANDRE McGEE: I think the advantage we have of playing in the Big East, you play against so many different styles, which allows us to be game for anything. So however the game is played, we're able to adjust to it. So, you know, we're ready for it.

Q. Rick, twice before in Elite games '92, '95, you lost. Next year you went back and went to the Final Four. When you have a team that close, do you learn things from a game like that that you can apply the next year to improve?

COACH PITINO: I think it's indicative of last year. We played for the Big East championship at Georgetown on the road and we lost. This year we played at West Virginia and won. Last year we played -- it was a very difficult environment. I thought our guys did a terrific job last year. They played -- I don't believe North Carolina left the state. I don't think they left their backyard actually. I don't think they even had to bring their toothbrush. And we played in front of 19,000, 18,500 Tar Heel fans. So we remember that. That's no excuse for losing certainly. But we were up against it.

This year these guys finished the No. 1 seed. But they know regardless of whether it was Kansas or Michigan State, they knew they were going against a great basketball team. We've got tremendous respect for what Michigan State does. Regardless, Michigan State is able to play fast as well. They're very good on the break, very underrated on the break, very good in transition. Any time you rebound the ball as well as they do, they're going to be good in transition. Our guys know it.

It's going to have to come from more than Earl and T. Will. The ones, twos and fives are going to have to step up and rebound the ball.

Q. Rick, can you talk about your relationship with Coach Izzo. He said he called you when he was entertaining about going to Atlanta a few years back. Can you talk about some of the advice you gave.

COACH PITINO: I've always had great respect for what he does. He has a lot of fun coaching. His players play real hard. You know, he's always in demand any time you hear a job open. He's on everybody's wish list. So he carries himself with great dignity. He has terrific integrity about the way he runs his program. They're always fundamentally sound, always knocking on the door of a Final Four.

I thought he would have been a really good pro coach as well, but I'm really pleased he stayed in the college game because the college game needs people like Tom Izzo.

Q. Samardo, you heard a couple people remark about your development. What would you say you're doing better? You struggled against Connecticut. How are you different since then?

SAMARDO SAMUELS: Every day I come to practice, I try to learn something new, you know. This year the biggest challenge for me has been rebounding. In the college game, it's a little bit different. It's a little bit more challenging for me I think.

Like right now, every time I go out there on the court, it's a tournament, it's not a regular season, so I know I have to rebound. I just try to do that my best every game. You know, even I don't get the rebound, I try to box out or do something to help my team get the rebound.
You know, post up as deep as I can in the line, give my team a scoring option down low.

Q. Coach, Louisville has struggled on the second day of the weekend over the years. The style of play, the up-tempo, do you ever worry your team may be worn out for that second day?

COACH PITINO: What are you referring to when we struggled? I never knew we did that. Do you have a specific time that we struggled? What are you referring to? Are you referring to a specific game?

Q. Not necessarily a specific game. Just maybe as much in control of situations. The record isn't necessarily as strong on the second day of the weekends.

COACH PITINO: When was that, though, that you're alluding to?

Q. Just an overall record.

COACH PITINO: I don't know how to answer that because we've been to a Final Four, we've been to Elite 8s. I don't think you have any basis for saying that. I don't mean to be rude. I just don't know what you're referring to.

I think maybe what you're referring to is do pressing teams get tired with one day's rest? Maybe you mean that. And we pressed all three days at a Big East tournament non-stop and won the Big East tournament.

So I really think that, you know, we go hard in practice and we don't waste a lot of time. I believe sometimes during this time of year teams can get out of shape because they lay around hotels, they don't work real hard. We worked extremely hard getting ready for Arizona. We're in very good shape right now. We haven't lost our conditioning.

Sometimes the 8 through 13 lose their conditioning. I think that we're in peak shape right now. We don't go a long time. Today we didn't even use our hour and a half. We didn't have to.
I think we have a little bit of an advantage in that area. I think that our record in tournament play speaks for itself.

BILL BENNER: Gentlemen, we will dismiss you to individual breakout rooms. We'll continue with questions for Coach Pitino.

Q. Terrence Williams said growing up he wanted to play football. Could you ever see him playing football? What kind of athlete would he be out on the football field?

COACH PITINO: I imagine he'd be a great tight end because he's so strong. He's 6'6". He jumps great. Probably could be a wide receiver, too. But I'm glad he didn't play football. He's tough enough to, though.

Q. Somewhat surprising you and Tom Izzo have never coached against each other. Are you looking forward to matching wits and styles with him?

COACH PITINO: You know, it's an interesting thing. I never think of another coach. I think of a style that the coach represents. And I've got so much respect for what they do and how they do it, how they run their program.

So, yeah, we are looking forward to playing them because it means going to a Final Four, needless to say. But we know that every basket's going to be very difficult. They give you -- they don't give you good looks.

Last night we had a lot of great looks because we were going against a zone. This game, we will not go against a zone. Maybe it will change up a little bit. But we're going to go against very intense man-to-man. They don't like giving up second shots.

They played a terrific game and hung in there because Kansas had the lead most of the game. So I think what Tom represents, we look forward to going against because it epitomizes everything, I believe, as a coach in what he does. It will be a great challenge for us.

Q. Having coached Kentucky, with that job open now, what sort of personality traits or qualities are necessary for someone to go down there and be successful?

COACH PITINO: Well, Kentucky's a very unique job. I'm sure it's very similar to Notre Dame football and Alabama football. I say this last time around, although I did speak to people there, I'm not naming the coach, and it's none of my business, but I'll stick my two cents in, okay? For me, last time around, Billy Gillespie is a terrific coach. I would have immediately hired either John Pelphrey and Travis Ford last time around. Here is my reason for. My first choice would have been Pat Riley. I don't say that in jest. He would have been my first choice because he's a Kentucky basketball player.

It's such a unique job that you need to win over the fans. You need to win the press conference right away. The reason Pelphrey and Travis, and I don't say this because I love both guys dearly as ex-players, I think they're brilliant young coaches. And Jeremy Foley, the AD of Florida, called me when Billy Donovan was at Marshall. He left me and went to Marshall. And I told Billy not to take the Florida job. The program was decimated. Lon left the Final Four team. They had no players. They were going to dwell in the cellar of the Big East. I convinced Billy not to take that job. At that time he listened to me.

I got a phone call 10 minutes later after I hung up from Billy from Jeremy Foley. He said to me, Rick, I understand you're talking Billy out of taking this job. I said, I don't dictate what Billy does. I gave my opinion. I think your talent is not there. I think it's going to take a long time. And I think he's got a great future. He said, Speaking of that, let me ask you this question. In three years from now, if Billy Donovan would stay at Marshall or wherever he's at, if I said to you in three years Billy Donovan will be one of the best young coaches in the game of college basketball, how would you answer me? I said, I agree with you 100%. He said, Okay, so why don't I give him a seven-year contract, give him the three years, and in four years, and you call him up and tell him I'll hire him, I'll give him everything he needs. I'll never forget that. I called Billy up and I said, I think you're going to work for a great man, Billy, I'd take the job. He did. And in three years, Billy was one of the bright young stars in the game.

If you said to me right now in three years who will be one of the bright young stars in our game, I would say, without reservation at all, that John Pelphrey or Travis Ford would both be young stars in the game. On top of that, they are beloved by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and all their fans, what they call Big Blue Nation. So for anybody, it's a big adjustment. For those guys, it's not. Everybody looks for these marquee names, big names. I think football got really smart. Instead of looking for the marquee names, they went after guys that can really coach and really recruit. It takes a little bit of homework.

But those two guys played for me. They're tremendous young coaches. I don't care where they're at, they love Oklahoma State, love Arkansas, but those two guys, you cut them open, and it spells UK. That's what I would do. But I have no -- it was a long dissertation for a very easy question. Last time around I thought that's what they should do, because three years from now they're going to have one of the bright young coaches in the game. Everybody loves though guys for what they represent. You could take the whole nation, myself, Tom Izzo, anybody else into the equation, those two guys would be better than all of us for the job.

That's my two cents that lasted 20 minutes. Thank you.

Q. You've had tremendous success in college basketball, Final Fours. What do you credit that success to? Is it fortunate to have great players, a will to win?

COACH PITINO: I think it's so many things. When you build a program, you have to build a brand first of all of what you're all about. Tom has done it at Michigan State. We believe we're doing it at Louisville. You build it with understanding what 'team' is all about. I'm a big believer in all the philosophies that Bill Russell preaches that the only statistic that's important is the final score and the only thing that's important is what you're representing.

And we tried to do that from day one. We try to have a work ethic second to none. We try to stay humble and understand that we can be beaten on any given night. When we lose, we never make excuses. We give the other team credit.

It all starts with recruiting. We understand when you're a pro coach, you understand why you win and why you lose, it's the guys on the floor. For me, coaching eight years of professional basketball was great because it taught me so many things of why you win and why you lose. So we try to recruit quality people who understand the things I just mentioned. It's connecting the dots to so many things that produce a winner, a consistent winner.

Q. A lot has been made of you coming from the Big East, the grit of the Big-10, the quality you played against. Not to take anything away from that, do you think that's at all a little overrated? Michigan State is coming off a great win over a Kansas team. You handled the Arizona team. When all is said and done, how much is that going to really matter?

COACH PITINO: I think when you get to the Elite 8, you're right 100%, it really doesn't matter.

I think the Big East this year was just tougher than any time in the Big East since its inception. It was just a tough, tough league, a meat grinder. So we're prepared for it. Next year the Big East will not be. It could be the PAC-10 next year or could be the ACC. It changes. It's cyclical.
So at this point in time, it doesn't help us the fact that, we're in the Big East, that means we're going to beat Michigan State, or they're in the Big-10, they're going to beat Louisville. It's two teams that have great respect for each other. We're going to go at it and see who wins.

Q. Terrence Jennings has come in the last few games and given you bursts of put-backs, blocked shots, energy. How good is he getting?

COACH PITINO: It's very difficult to gauge because he's such a bad practice player that you never expect him to be great in games. He does things that shock us.

That's not a knock on Terrence about being a bad practice player, because most freshmen are. Samardo is the exception to the rule. It takes every player I've had a Louisville, with the exception of maybe Taquan, one or two other guys, have not been good practice players as freshmen because they don't really understand how to work hard. But T.J. comes into games and does things we never see in practice. It's startling for us. He's so much different, his game, than Samardo Samuels. He's quicker, more of an explosive jumper. Samardo is better at other things. It's a two-headed monster as freshmen that really makes us go.

Q. Coach Izzo was talking about he felt like his program was maybe still a cut below the 'blue bloods' of college basketball.

COACH PITINO: You're saying Michigan State is or us?

Q. Michigan State is. Looking at what he's been able to establish there, how would you rate where they are as a program?

COACH PITINO: I put Michigan State top seven programs in the country over his tenure. You know, I think Louisville is up there. Certainly Kentucky and North Carolina and Duke are up there. Connecticut and Georgetown, they're all up there. So it's top eight or 10 without question. Great, great program. That's why they're always knocking on the door for a Final Four.
You know, sometimes you got to wait for your talent to get in the junior/senior class before you truly prosper. I didn't mention Indiana, but they've been a little down. Obviously, Indiana from a traditional standpoint is one of the great programs in college basketball. I'd put them in the top 10 along with the rest of the great programs, Kansas, and now Memphis is building their legacy in modern times as a top 10 program.

Q. You mentioned Bill Russell. Your players would say you don't have to give the Bill Russell speech any more, you can just say his name, they could probably give it. Are there other speeches you found yourself giving this team the most or places you keep going to reinforce things with them?

COACH PITINO: You know, we talk every day about something different in short stints. I probably quote Bill the most because he epitomizes -- he's the greatest team winner. When you watch him talk, it's not ego, it's team ego. The only statistic that matters is the final score. He told my team with the Celtics a fascinating things with Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt Chamberlain made him a bet. Celtics were winning championships. He bet him a thousand dollars he couldn't average 20 points a game. He said, You're on, Wilt. A thousand dollars back then, if you can all think back, probably a hundred thousand today, whatever it would be worth. Whether they would have paid each other or just a gentlemen's bet, I don't know. He called them up in August, said, Wilt, the bet is off. I'm going to send you a check. He said, don't send me a check, I knew you couldn't do it. He said, No, I can do it, but Cousy just announced his retirement. We got a hot-shot rookie coming in named John Havlicek. I would take away from their game and hurt the Celtics if I averaged 20, so I'm going to send you a check. They laughed about it. That's exactly what he's all about, it's always team.

So I quote him quite often because, to me, he's what represents a winner. If you had to have a winner's picture in the dictionary, Bill Russell would be next to it. It's just about the team with him. That's all we try to preach. I always bring up that Florida is the only team with three top 10 picks in the history of the NBA draft. Not one person averaged more than 13 points a game. Eight years in an NBA war room, not one time with all the scouts around, all the great scouts and great minds in the war room, nobody ever asked, What did they average per game? Can he shoot? Can he block shots? How many rebounds per minute? Turnover ratio? Nobody was ever interested in how many points he averaged per game.

When you talk about business, you talk about winning, you don't talk about points.

Q. Do you feel Tom gets his due? Talking about top coaches in college basketball, it will be Krzyzewski, your name thrown out there.

COACH PITINO: Well, every job opening that ever comes, he's No. 1 on everybody's wish list. I don't hear Coach K's name being named for Kentucky, all these other jobs. Maybe they think he's a little secure, wouldn't leave.

I put him up there with all these coaches. There's no better than Tom Izzo in our game. He's on everybody's wish list. Nobody can pry him away. Nobody probably ever will pry him away. I hope not for Michigan State, because they've got truly one of the great ones.

Q. Teams tend to react sometimes differently to losses at this level. When you lost last year, can you talk about how your team reacted and if it was different from other teams you've coached in the past.

COACH PITINO: React to what?

Q. To losses at this kind of level.

COACH PITINO: You know, the one thing I've learned, and for me the NBA was an invaluable experience from a learning experience. You know, we won a lot with the Knicks, and I loved it, being a young man that grew up in New York City. Then we lost with the Celtics. I learned both from winning and losing so many different things. The NBA was just a fabulous learning experience for me, especially the two years I was with Hubie Brown as an assistant.

What I learned when you lost is, stop dwelling on the loss and give credit where credit's due. So many times when you lose a game, maybe not publicly, but privately you blame the officials. You make excuses to something else. The one thing I've learned from the NBA is just give the other team credit.

We lost to Western Kentucky in the beginning of the year. Everybody just couldn't understand it. I said, Look, they were better than us that night. They outplayed us. You weren't up for the game. No, we were up for the game. Maybe you weren't as prepared. No, we prepared our asses off. They were better than we were that night. They deserve all the credit.

As it turns out, as I'm watching the NCAA tournament, Western Kentucky was a hell of a basketball team, as well as Minnesota. So you just lose. On any given game, if it's not a series, you can lose. We could have lost to Siena very easily. We certainly can lose tomorrow. If we do, we'll be disappointed, but we'll give all the credit where credit's due, and that's to Michigan State.
I think that's where people missed the boat a little bit. The other team prepares, works hard, has their style. So we don't let losses bother us. We try to figure out why we lost, try to make the corrections, but still understand that the other team's damn good.

BILL BENNER: Thank you.

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