CRAWFORD | After fashioning one unlikely finish, Pitino goes to - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | After fashioning one unlikely finish, Pitino goes to work on the next one

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AP photo. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Let's start with a look back.

In the 2014-15 season, Rick Pitino had a University of Louisville team that couldn't shoot the three (305th out of 351 NCAA Division I teams in three-point percentage) and could not score from the center position (350th out of 351 teams in one statistical index).

He lost his starting point guard — and assist and steals leader — in February, and had to call upon a freshman to replace him.

He relied on his starters to the point where he had two of them finish among the school's top 10 for minutes played in a season (Terry Rozier with 1,260 and Montrezl Harrell with 1,229), only the third combo in U of L history to rank in the top 10 in the same season.

Despite all these problems, Pitino's team finished a free throw away from the Final Four. It won 27 games against a schedule ranked No. 16 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, and had the No. 5 defense nationally against a schedule that Pomeroy ranked No. 12 in offensive efficiency.

And that even after having to scrap the team's complicated match-up zone because it was confusing his own players as much as the opponents.

Stop for a minute to appreciate the coaching job this season took. It took fantastic defenses. And after losing point guard Chris Jones, Pitino went back to the drawing board and decided that paint touches were the ticket to getting enough offense to win. And it worked. The Cardinals beat the No. 2 team in the nation. They were an eyelash from a Final Four trip.

When the team listened to Pitino and ran its offense, it won. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they drifted from the offensive plan from time to time.

“When you look back on it, you're kind of amazed that just paint touches and confusing defenses could get us to that point,” Pitino said. “I mean, we should have been in the Final Four. We should have been there and believe me it will take a long time for that pain to go away.”

The next time you're inclined to doubt the Hall of Fame coach, remember.

Of course, that time might already be here for some.

Pitino announced on Monday that Montrezl Harrell, as expected, is going pro, and that sophomore Terry Rozier also will declare for the draft, a decision Rozier confirmed later in the day.

He told reporters he expected a few transfers, then hours later — and just three days after appearing on the podium following the Cards' Sweet 16 win over North Carolina State — Anton Gill said he is leaving.

“I want to thank all of my coaches and teammates for two great years,” Gill said in a statement released by the school.  “I really appreciate all of the support I received from everyone.  I've talked to my family and will take my time to look at my next step after I finish out this semester.  I'm just looking for a fresh start to try something new.”

Pitino called Gill “one of the finest young men that I have had the privilege of coaching,” and said, “I agree with his decision  and have given him his release to attend any university he desires.”

Beyond that, Pitino said he wasn't sure whether freshmen Shaqquan Aaron or Chinanu Onuaku would return for a sophomore season.

The final links to U of L's 2013 NCAA championship team are gone with the graduation of Wayne Blackshear and the departure of Harrell.

But not only that, 81 percent of the Cardinals' scoring from this season will be gone. If Onuaku were to leave, that would be 85.3 percent.

As much as Pitino doesn't want to use the “rebuilding” word, that scoring number suggests some rebuilding will be needed, no matter how good the young talent in the program, and that coming into the program, turns out to be.

“I don't want to rebuild,” Pitino said. “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.”

Pitino says he will likely pursue some graduate transfers from other Division I programs who can play right away. He is also looking at some junior college players to join five star prospects Deng Adel (a top wing player) and Donovan Mitchell (a highly regarded shooting guard) as well as Trinity High School center Raymond Spalding.

“You have an idea who the fifth-year guys are, you have no idea if they'll transfer or not,” Pitino said. “But it only takes one or two to help your program and we're in dire need of help right now. We have a lot of bodies who can bang, rebound, block shots, but we don't have a lot of guys who can score, and we've got to have scorers. We've got to have guys who can shoot the basketball.”

Pitino said that his incoming class is “the best freshmen class that we're bringing in. I think Donovan Mitchell is, without question, physical and mentally ready to play. I'm positive of that. He's a unique attitude. Deng Adel is one of the top players in the country. I've got to wait and see on him. Ray Spalding needs a lot of strength and work.”

The Cardinals have Jaylen Johnson returning at a wing spot. And Pitino is hoping for progress from Matz Stockman and Anas Mahmoud.

He said the group should benefit from a summer trip in conjunction with him coaching the Puerto Rican national team.

After one of the more remarkable pivots in his coaching career, Pitino is pressed right back into the challenge of building quickly again next season.

But if he continues to show anything, it's that he's pretty adept at finding a way where it's difficult to see any way at all.

“There's good and bad in every situation,” Pitino said. “But now we've got to keep our program at the level where we're at, and in order to do that we've really got to recruit some offensive basketball players.”

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