CRAWFORD | As they arrive in Puerto Rico, young Cards already have won over their coach
SAN JUAN, P.R. (WDRB) -- Why do this? That’s probably the question I’ve heard most since Rick Pitino took the job of coaching the Puerto Rican National Team, and changed his team’s summer plan from a European tour to a nine-games-in-six-days sprint in this Caribbean archipelago.
Why would he take time away from a brand-new University of Louisville team to spend time in Puerto Rico, coach long hours all summer, then come down for the summer trip to coach a team other than his own?
If you saw Pitino step off the bus with his Louisville team on Monday, you got a pretty good idea.
Make no mistake — Pitino is here to coach the Puerto Rican team. He’s excited about the Puerto Rican team. But his heart already is with the guys in red.
“Our fans are going to fall in love with this team,” Pitino said shortly after arriving at the San Juan Ritz-Carlton, where his team will spend the next week.
And their head coach may already have beaten them to the punch. Sure, it may still be the honeymoon. And it's easy to be all smiles with the beach and basketball beckoning. But Pitino is insistent.
“I’ll tell you, Eric, I haven’t seen this type of attitude since 1987,” Pitino said.
That, of course, was his very first Final Four team, Providence College, led by Billy Donovan, probably his favorite player. From the returning players to incoming freshmen, Pitino says he has been amazed.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen guys get together so much,” Pitino said. “Everything we say about Louisville first and play for the front, these guys, it didn’t even have to be explained to them. It’s almost like they were born a Louisville basketball player in the way they’re thinking.”
Now, Pitino follows that up by acknowledging that it might not translate to wins. Chemistry only goes so far at Michigan State or in Rupp Arena. But as he worked with both his Puerto Rican team last week, he found himself wishing it could show the heart (and conditioning) of his Louisville team.
“Puerto Rico I want to get in better shape, and Louisville I’d like to get a couple of victories,” Pitino said. “They’re practicing very well. The team has surprised me. I still thought this would be a rebuilding project, but one that could turn into a winner, and they’ve surpassed my expectations early on because of their attitude.”
As Pitino was talking, Chinanu Onuaku stepped off the bus and sneaked up behind Pitino, flashing rabbit ears and a wide smile for the camera. Others followed suit with their own kind of photo-bombing.
“This helps immensely, bonding-wise, basketball wise, these trips, when you play against great competition and you’re together all the time, it’s great,” Pitino said.
Pitino said he thinks the Cards will start Onuaku and Mangok Mathiang together in the first game, and that he’ll leave the back-court arrangement up to assistant coach Ralph Willard.
U of L assistant Mike Balado has been Pitino’s assistant with the Puerto Rican team.
“It’s because I speak Spanish,” Balado said. “If coach wants to yell at them in Spanish, I’m his guy.”
But when Balado returned from international competition, he said he was surprised at what he saw from the young Cardinals.
“I was very impressed,” Balado said. “This group, forget basketball for a second, have been tremendous young men in practice. Their enthusiasm, they’re just a positive, very tight-knit group.”
Now on Monday, we’ll get to see them play basketball. They arrived in Puerto Rico in late afternoon and wandered out to the beach behind the hotel. Some took their shoes off, and they laughed, some had arms around each other.
“We got very lucky with some of these newcomers,” Pitino said.
His efforts will be with Puerto Rico this week. But his eyes will be on the Cardinals too. The Cards will open Tuesday night with a split-squad pair of exhibitions, at 5:30 against the Puerto Rican junior national team and at 8 against the national team.
“Either way, I can’t lose,” Pitino said.