Louisville coach Rick Pitino addressed the media Monday afternoon for his season wrap-up press conference, and he sounded like a man who had something precious stolen from him.
Speaking about Sunday afternoon’s heartbreaking overtime loss to Michigan State, Pitino was in no mood to give generic coach-speak, and he let his feelings be known.
“I’m not going to mislead you and tell you that it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “Outside of the (1992 Elite Eight loss to Duke), I think this was probably the second most-bitter defeat that we have faced, because, you know when Mangok made that first free throw which shouldn’t have gone in, I said, we’re going to win this thing. I said all we’ve got to do is play defense for four seconds and we’re in the Final Four, because I was positive the second one would go in after that luck. And it didn’t go in.”
Pitino deserves praise for getting a team who looked out of sync for a majority of the season to a third Elite Eight in four years, but this team was far from resembling a normal Pitino-coached team. What is usually among the nation’s best defensive units appeared confused and out of place on the defensive end most of the season, and he lacked his usual reliable outside shooters. It was a team who got virtually nothing from the center position and had a bench consisting of maybe only two semi-reliable options all season. In essence, it was a team who overachieved, and Pitino does not wish to have to face the same challenge in the future.
“Going forward, we have got to do something about our shooting problems, and there’s only one way to do it,” he said. “We have got to bring in players who can shoot the basketball.”
Louisville as a team shot just 42.9% from the field this season, putting them outside the top 200 teams in the country. The percentage from three-point range was even worse, as the team shot a pedestrian 30.7% from beyond the arc, putting them outside the top 300. No significant contributor on the team shot better than 33.9% from three, and adding on the fact Louisville’s center position ranked 350th out of 351 schools in points per game, it goes without saying this was one of the worst offensive teams in his coaching career.
Part of the overhaul has already begun, as it was announced Monday afternoon that sophomore shooting guard Anton Gill, who had struggled mightily with every aspect of his game in two seasons, would transfer. Pitino sounded as if he would not be the only one on the way out, either.
“I think a couple guys will transfer,” he said. “I’m not against that. Everybody can’t play the minutes they want to play. So expected it before the end of the season and they don’t see themselves playing a whole lot next year.”
The way the coach spoke about some of his returning players and the way he spoke (or did not speak) about others was telling.
“The guys coming back are all going to be good basketball players,” he said. “I’m very bullish on Jaylen Johnson. Matz and Anas both have a long way to go but they both have a lot of potential. Certainly Quentin Snider filled in admirably when we had a problem, but he’s got to get markedly better. Mangok had a very difficult year, but his attitude is by far the best on the team. He’ll come out of it. He’ll work very, very hard, and he’ll be better for the experience that he just had.”
Noticeably absent from his mentions were Gill, freshman wing Shaqquan Aaron, and freshman center Chinanu Onuaku. Gill is already out the door, while both Aaron and Onuaku drew the ire of Pitino multiple times this season.
Aaron he once referred to as “not a Louisville man,” and the lanky freshman appeared visibly unhappy more often than not sitting on the bench. Onuaku, Pitino said multiple times, did not work hard or get enough effort to get better. He spoke on both players later on in the conference, seeming more optimistic about Onuaku.
“No, I wasn’t (impressed with Onuaku’s progress),” he said. “He’s got a long way to go, but he’s young, he’s got to make improvements in his attitude, his work ethic, and he’s got to make improvements in a lot of areas, but he’s capable of doing it.”
Regarding Aaron, Pitino in a way just verbally shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know about that one, I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t seen enough to like yet. It’s a wait and see. He came in late. He’s got a bad body. He’s not thrilled with the weight room, just until the last month he got serious about it. He needs a makeover.”
While he is obviously disappointed in certain players, it is important to remember these were the players he recruited. The last few years, he just did not do a good job in that area. As a coach, he did a fine job, but as a recruiter counted on to bring in the best players to fit what he wanted to do, he did not.
Since 2011, Pitino has signed 17 players. So far, 7 of the bunch has either transferred out or was dismissed. Of the remaining 10, only 4 have made a significant impact, and of those 4, Montrezl Harrell, virtually fell into his lap in the late recruiting period. Since his arrival at Louisville, he has had more transfers and dismissals combined than any other national championship program in that span.
The good news for Louisville fans here, though, is that it is clear he is fully aware of that this time around. He used the words “I need” rather than “they need” and spoke of seeking out offensively ready players. In the past, he has targeted mainly defensive prospects with upside who he hoped would develop an offensive game.
After the taste of success he has had since 2011, he sees his team in front of him and is going to do what he needs to do to keep his program at the top.
“There’s two ways we can go right now,” he said. “We can go this way, or it’s going to be a year or two of rebuilding. Well, I don’t want to rebuild. We’ve come too far, a Final Four, Elite Eights, and I don’t want to rebuild. I want to reload. And in order to do that we’ve got to get people with high character, who can shoot the basketball. We’re intending on going right to work on that.”
He expressed heavy optimism regarding the incoming freshman class, calling the group “the best freshmen class” he has brought to Louisville, and he was especially high on 5-star guard Donovan Mitchell, who he said has a unique attitude and is”without question, physical and mentally ready to play.” Yet, he still would like to add more players, especially shooters.
Potential prospects have already emerged, as Louisville has already made contact with Cleveland State guard Trey Lewis, who scored 24 points against the Cards earlier in the season. Throughout the season, he averaged 16 points per game, hit 96 three-pointers, and averaged 42% from beyond the arc. His 96 makes is 30 more than any other Louisville player this season, and his 42% is almost 10% better than anyone on the team. He is a junior who will graduate in the spring and will be immediately eligible.
He also is open to the junior college ranks, as he currently has high scoring sharpshooter Mychal Mulder of Vincennes College on campus right now. Mulder is a 6-4 high flyer who can shoot the deep ball with success, as he made 46.3% of the 190 three-pointers he took this season. He also averaged 15.7 points per game on 49% field goal percentage.
There is also high school prospect Maverick Rowan, a 6-7 G/F who can shoot from deep and who has been compared to Luke Hancock. He is arguably Pitino’s top prospect, and although he is currently a class of 2016 prospect, there is serious talk he could reclassify to be eligible next year. He would be a major asset for Louisville if they can close the deal for this coming year.
Other potential names to listen for are Drexel’s Damion Lee, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey, and High Point’s John Brown.
Lee, at 6-6 is the nation’s #5 scorer and a 39% three-point shooter. Ferrell is a former 5-star prospect who shoots 42% from three, averages 16 points per game, and has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable era of IU basketball. Harvey is the nation’s top scorer at 23.1 points per game who shoots 43% from three. Brown is a 6-8 forward who some regard as the best dunker in college basketball, averaged 19.3 points per game on 55% shooting, and was recruited to High Point by current Louisville assistant Mike Balado.
So far, there has been no legitimate talk of Louisville in discussion with any of those players, but if Pitino is looking for immediate offensive impact, chances are he will be in touch.
The key takeaway is that Pitino has no plans of regression or to start from scratch. He wants to win, and he wants to win now. Perhaps he thinks with his age, his coaching window is closing, or maybe after making Elite Eights and Final Fours an annual expectation rather than a pipe dream, he refuses to accept anything less. In any regard, he seems determined to let the Michigan State loss fuel him.
“I mean, we should have been in the Final Four,” he said. “We should have been there and believe me it will take a long time to go away.”
He has proven he still has the coaching chops to get the job done, and if he succeeds in his plan to reload the roster with shooters and scorers, that feeling should go away much sooner than later.