What could Rick Pitino possibly learn from coaching Puerto Rico? A lot
Jeff Goodman, ESPN Insider
Rick Pitino is 62 years old, a Hall of Famer who normally yearns for the slower pace of the offseason.
So why Louisville's head coach took on the commitment of helping Puerto Rico qualify for the 2016 Olympics was puzzling.
Pitino's debut at the Pan Am Games in July underscored just how daunting a task he had undertaken. It featured a 92-59 drubbing at the hands of Brazil. Then came another 30-point plus loss to Team USA. However, since then that initial rag-tag Puerto Rican squad has been upgraded for the next week's FIBA Americas Championship Olympic qualifier in Mexico City. But the reality is the team is overmatched.
Just don't tell that to Pitino.
"I don't regret this at all," Pitino said. "Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] and Brett Brown both told me I'd learn a lot -- and I have."
While Pitino's family couldn't quite comprehend (and still can't) his reasons for this summer-long commitment, Pitino decided to coach Puerto Rico for several reasons: (1) to learn new ideas; (2) the sheer challenge to get Puerto Rico into the Olympics and (3) it offered his new-look Louisville team valuable experience playing against a group of pros.
Pitino admitted the 10 practices leading up to the trip and the games against guys such as NBA guard J.J. Barea have been important for him and all of his players -- both Louisville and Puerto Rico. However, Pitino said what he has learned the most from watching teams such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela has been eye-opening and will benefit him and his Louisville teams going forward.
"We've already put in an offensive set from each of those three teams," Pitino said. "I've learned so much offensively already."
Remember, this man is 62, a Hall of Famer, and has a college coaching career winning percentage of .740. He's won two national championships and been to the Final Four seven times. What does he have to learn?
That initial rag-tag group that got blown out was made up primarily of anonymous players. Most didn't even make the roster for the Olympic qualifier (the better players were still playing in pro leagues at the time of the Pan Am Games). But he was able to use those games as an opportunity to scout opposing teams and watch how teams such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela ran their offenses.
"The way they pass the ball," Pitino said. "They move the ball, and have a lot of guys who can shoot the 3. Their ball movement, cutting and passing is terrific."
Pitino said each of the three sets he has already implemented into Louisville's system is based on players moving and cutting, along with paint touches, which ultimately enables someone to get an uncontested shot.
"The NBA is a lot of isolation, but a lot of what you see with the international teams is a lot what the San Antonio Spurs do," Pitino said.
While Pitino admittedly has picked up plenty on the offensive side of the ball, that hasn't quite been the case on the other end of the floor.
"I've learned very little defensively," he said. "It's completely ridiculous. In FIBA, there are a lot of illegal screens, pushing, it's three times more physical than the NBA.
"Guys get fouled five or six times every possession," he added. "There aren't as many spectacular plays because when you go to the basket for a dunk, you get taken out."
Pitino did say two players who thrived in the Pan Am Games -- and also the Tuto Marchand Cup, a tune-up for the FIBA Americas Championship -- were Canadians Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.
"Wiggins is becoming much tougher because of the way the game is played," Pitino said. "And Bennett's confidence is coming back because he enjoys the physical play."
Pitino is realistic about Puerto Rico's chances to qualify for the Olympics. Brazil already has qualified, so that leaves one more spot -- and both Canada and Argentina will be difficult to beat. Especially with Puerto Rico's Maurice Harkless still nursing an ankle injury that has put his availability in question.
"I think we've got a shot," Pitino said. "But we need Mo Harkless and everyone else healthy."
For a few days back in July, while most of his peers were in gyms throughout the country watching top recruits, Pitino was internally debating whether he made a mistake to give up his summer to coach a group that couldn't even stay within 30 points of Brazil or the U.S. at the Pan Am Games.
But Puerto Rico has been far more competitive since that 1-3 showing, and has won both of its games in the Tuto Cup, which runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 12 in Mexico City.
"I've given up a couple months of my life," Pitino said. "But it's been a worthwhile experience. I've loved the ability to learn new things at this stage of my career. I'll get another chance to take a vacation, but I might never get another opportunity like this."