Coach Pitino Reflects on the Puerto Rico Trip

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After months of preparation, our trip to Puerto Rico finally happened.  The months were not spent in Louisville but Puerto Rico.  We were coaching two different teams: Pan American Games team and later the National Team.  The Pan Am team consisted of J.J. Barea and a group of ex-college players trying to catch on to overseas contracts.  Solid men but only a few would make the team traveling to the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City.

It was all worth the effort and time.  I got to scout teams we could potentially play in Mexico City and Louisville got to face outstanding older competition.

The National team will be comprised of two N.B.A players, J.J. Barea (Dallas Mavericks) and Moe Harkless (Portland Trailblazers).  Moe has been a terrific addition to the team. His length will help tremendously. The rest of the group will come from the Superior League in Puerto Rico. The Superior League is comprised of twelve professional teams throughout Puerto Rico.  We have very little post play at the five spot as 7’2 Peter John Ramos and 7’0 Ricky Sanchez decided to not play for their country.  It was disappointing, but I’ve learned throughout my coaching years that it’s always more difficult than what was told from the beginning.

The major difference between the USA and the Puerto Rico National Team is guaranteed contracts.  The NBA players have very lucrative deals with teams that pay them millions of dollars. The large percent of the National Team are guys hoping to hook on in Europe or South America. Money is very tight at this time in Puerto Rico as they are $74 billion in debt to bond holders.  If the US doesn’t come to the rescue in some way, the Puerto Rican people will have severe money hardships. I truly hope we will reach out and help them as I’ve grown so fond of their spirit and kindness.

The National Team spent nine days practicing, lifting weights and watching film in Louisville.  The Louisville team had double sessions and lifted weights as well.

The National Team played one scrimmage against ex UofL players. Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark, David Padgett, Juan Palacios, Stephen Van Treese and Alhaji Mohammed and a few other guys who played a few years ago in college. The National Team won by 23 points.  After the nine days, we traveled together from Louisville to Puerto Rico.

We learned so much from this level of competition. Older players who know how to shoot and use their skills at the highest level. The Superior Pro League has one major drawback.  It’s overly physical, much more than college or the NBA. Holding, pushing, illegal screens are the norm. The players are very leery of leaving their feet for the spectacular dunk and having their feet taken out.  Outside of the physical play, the Pro League is well organized.   It’s four months of basketball with the top players making around $120,000 for their season.

My assistant, Richard Dalmau, who serves as one of the head pro coaches, and veteran legendary player, Larry Ayuso still haven’t been paid.  This is not unusual and happens all the time.  Larry and Richard, who also played for the National Team in years past, do not deserve that type of treatment.  Of course lawyers get involved and hopefully they will be compensated.  It’s a far cry from the NBA guarantees.

All games were very competitive except one, a thirty-point blowout. The overtime loss for Louisville watched Damien Lee score 36 points.  The next night, A.D. (Angel David) Vassallo came in the locker room and said, “I got Lee.”  A.D. was a standout for Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech. A.D. got the better of him, but kept talking to him throughout the game, trying to teach him what to do against certain defenses.  All the Puerto Rican guys would help the Louisville team throughout the series. Renaldo Balkman, who played at South Carolina, would help Mangok and the other bigs. Harkless would instruct our guys as well.

Renaldo Balkman has been a surprise leader. It has been a while since I have seen him at the competitive level. He shows up at all the strength and conditioning workouts and gives you a 100%. With him and Mo teaming up, it gives us a great chance in the FIBA Americas. I asked  A.D.  Vassallo and Luis Villafane to lose weight and body fat and they have been nothing but obliging for the team. A.D. Dropping weight and body fat has made him a lethal offensive weapon.

These games were crucial to a team that lost so much scoring.  The Puerto Rican players were great to our guys and it was much appreciated by everyone.

We now know our strengths and weaknesses, as well as who is ready and who’s not.

Lets look at who is ready now and the others that need time and skill development.

Damion Lee: explosive scorer with great size for a guard. Handles the ball well and plays extremely hard at both ends. More than ready

The rest of the team needs time.  That is not a negative but rather a fact that it is August.

Nanu & Mangok had productive summers.

Mangok Mathiang: has improved his low post game and mid-range jumper.  Extremely vocal player and leader. His passing skills must improve over the next few months.  He gives away to the defense where he is passing. Pivoting and ball faking is much needed.  Will be ready!

Chinanu Onuaku: Won a gold medal for the USA team. Was a major factor in the last two games.  Has improved his overall game.  Still has a difficult time sustaining his stamina during games.  Gets fatigued and that leads to mistakes.  Better conditioning will make him a strong post player. Will be ready!

Trey Lewis: We have played with two point guards the last few years. It’s an adjustment for Trey playing at a much faster pace. Both Trey and Damion were very well coached at Drexel and Cleveland State, but our pace is an adjustment.  Good scorer and strong defender. Will be ready!

Quentin Snider:  Had his ups and downs but will be ready! Don’t need to say anymore.  Will be ready!

Deng Adel: Tough defender, strong driver.  Must work on developing a consistent arc on his jump shot.  Will be Ready!

Donovan Mitchell: Explosive guard and a freak athlete. Super attitude but must learn to change pace and get to the free throw line. Potentially a great defender.  Just needs to focus on creating contact on drives, using the pick & roll correctly and developing a dependable jump shot.  Will be ready!

Jaylen Johnson: Like Q, had his ups and downs.  The good news is also his bad news. He has multidimensional skills. He can post up, handle on the wing, rebound and is tough. What needs to be worked on most is becoming great in two areas. For example, a great rebounder – a great mid-range shooter.  Average to good in many areas, must develop good to great in a few.  Will be ready!

Ray Spalding: Complex evaluation. Has a similar personality to Larry O’Bannon as a freshman.  Introverted and sometimes plays shy on the court. Off the court, outgoing.  As I said, complex!  I will say this, I’ve not seen anyone in my 15 years at Louisville with more potential.  Needs time, but when he gets it, look out!

Anas Mamoud: Also had an up & down week. Time for him as a sophomore to step up. A sense of urgency would be a great step for him. Loaded with potential! Will be ready!

Matz Stockman: Sometimes he does things that excite everyone in the gym. Flashes of dominance, but they are not often. Wonderful young man who just beats himself up too much when he makes a mistake. He knows the problem, it’s time to find the solution. Needs time!

David Levitch: Just was awarded a scholarship for this season. Dependable player who will help us in tough situations.  If he had a consistent jump shot he would definitely see action. Not sure if he is ready.

Jay Henderson: walk-on from St. John’s. Was the surprise of our trip! Good size and work ethic. Will be ready!

Dillon Avare: Had a chance to play major minutes in our preliminary games. Definitely improving and making strides. Needs time.

Ryan McMahon: Shooter with a strong work ethic and great attitude. Probably will redshirt.  Defense needs a lot of work. Hoping he grows, if not, must learn how to make players better at the point guard position.  Needs time.

We are working on playing 10 J.V. games this year. Some will be played at the Yum! Center on game day. It will give guys like Matz, Dillon and Ryan a chance to play major minutes and continue to develop.

I traveled back with the team, two days off in Louisville and then back to Puerto Rico for practices and Tutu Marchand Cup Tournament for a week of games with other countries.

August 23rd: Brazil

August 24th: Dominican Republic

August 25th: Practice

August 26th: Canada

August 27th: Argentina

All of our games will be at 8:00pm at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.   Then we’re off to Mexico City.  With the water situation there, I should come back at 150 pounds.

Awesome experience for the Cards!

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