Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino had his mind on family and didn't have much to work with on the court to open practices last Friday at Williams Arena.
But Pitino talked about a lot more than injuries and his father's troubles at Louisville last week. He covered a wide range of topics from different roles for players and team expectations going into the 2017-18 season.
Q: What type of leadership do you expect from veterans Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch?
A: When the games get here those guys are the key. Those are the guys who have been there before. If those guys handle it the right way, you’re going to have a good team. (Graduated senior) Akeem (Springs) came in to a locker room that was very unconfident and instilled confidence just by his demeanor. We needed that at the time. I think Nate, Murph and Reggie it will be different (now), because they’ve been there. So they may not need to yell and scream, but they can speak from a great point of view about what it takes to win. Nate’s shown terrific leadership. Murph has. Reggie’s not been practicing (recovering from knee surgery), so it’s been hard to show on the side. But they’re all showing good growth in that department.
Q: What are your expectations for freshman Isaiah Washington?
A: I think with him, it’s interesting. Isaiah loves the game, as good as any player we’ve had here. Lives in the gym. Infectious personality. Brings others with him. Sometimes young people don’t do that. He needs to understand he’s a freshman. He’s got (400,000) Instagram followers. I don’t know what that means in life, but it’s something to him. There is something to that. What I’ve tried to get him to understand is at this level that’s all well and good. But it comes down to performance; it comes down to winning. So getting him to understand that and getting him to be patient. It takes time for all young people.
Q: Thoughts on such high expectations for the Gophers this season?
A: They are and that’s Ok. I’m excited about that. I do think that I’m not trying to lower expectations, but losing (sophomore forward) Eric Curry (out with season-ending knee injury) hurt us. It did. I’ve gone back and re-watched games as it gets closer to the season. It’s amazing how many times Eric Curry made a winning play. Iowa he made that steal in post defense. Indiana he tipped the ball to Akeem. Purdue he scored seven points (in OT) on the road. Michigan he made that nice floater when they were switching ball screens. Eric brought a really good dimension that we’re not going to have. That kind of knocked us down from a mental standpoint that we understand we need to be mentally in the right frame of mind if we want to be as good as we can be. Because we lost a really good player there.
Q: How has Amir Coffey improved?
A: He just looks different from a mentality standpoint. He just looks like that light has gone on as it pertains to little things. Maybe it’s a warmup drill that last year he had no interest in. Not that he didn’t work hard. But you can tell he’s taking the next step from a habit standpoint. I’m looking at him to where ‘you understand you can play basketball for a long time. You tasted success and you want more of it.’ It’s in front of him. He’s been really, really working hard. He went to Nike Skills Camp (this summer). That was good for him. Obviously, to have a really good freshman year. He should have terrific, terrific confidence. I think that he will play in the NBA. I think that’s realistic. But there are a lot of steps that go towards it. It just comes down to he took a great first step. He did a good job with the freshmen year. He had a step in high school and AAU where he was really, really good. If he continues to do that, yeah I think he has a future in the NBA.
Q: How do you deal with high team expectations?
A: I think it’s a lot easier people telling you how bad you are. Because to me my job last year was to get them confident, get them believing. And they knew they had to do it together. When you lose there’s a manual out there that you block out the noise, you ignore the haters, all that stuff.
Whenever anybody tells you how good you are it’s the same thing. It really does not matter. You got to get young people to understand that. And that’s probably been the No. 1 thing that I have done this summer is talk to them about that. About handling success. Because we were so bought into not proving people wrong, because I don’t buy into all that. But we were so eager to get the respect back for everybody and to win again and to get people talking. We got to understand that can go away. That’s fleeting as well. What got us here is doing it for each other, no ego, working hard. But this group has done that thus far. But it’s still very early.
Q: Are the players talking about going further in the NCAA tournament than last year?
A: They tasted success. If we are fortunate to get there again to the NCAA tournament we’ll review, ‘hey what did we not do right.’ Got to stay healthy obviously. But is there something we can get better from it? But that’s a long way away. We have goals certainly, but we didn’t talk about that. We’re a day to day program.
Q: Can you talk about the other freshman guard, Jamir Harris?
A: Terrific, terrific three-point shooter. He goes along with it seems like every year I have an undersized two-guard who takes horrific shots. He’s filling in well with that. Actually, he doesn’t take too many bad shots. Unlimited range. Plays so hard. Great kid. He’s just getting a feel for the offense. And when he does look out.
Q: Will Michael Hurt help this year?
A: He needs to help. With Eric going down it changes everything. We don’t have anybody at the backup four really to fill that void. So now Michael and Davonte (Fitzgerald) are going to need to play minutes in those spots. We’ve been trying to work with them on that.
Q: How do you feel about Washington being so big on social media?
A: He’s more of an Instagram guy than a Twitter guy. But I tell you what, if he ever gets in trouble. I know what I’ll do to punish him, and that’s Instagram. It’s interesting with him about that. It’s a real cool story about the Jelly Fam. I really don’t know what the hell it is. If he does it during a game and it gets blocked it’s going to be a problem. When we practice everybody is trying to block his shot and the coaches are hoping it gets blocked. But honestly it’s cool because the throwback New York City players have all left their high schools and go to these prep schools. Not a lot of kids stay at home. And Isaiah relished that. People say you don’t play on the playgrounds anymore. Isaiah loved playing on the playgrounds.
So he’s this throwback point guard. It’s just amazing. I’ll go out recruiting and kids are doing it. They’re doing the jelly and all that stuff. It’s unbelievable. So there’s something there. I told him, ‘You did something great. Now let’s use it the right way.’
Q: What’s the relationship like between Mason and Washington?
A: Terrific. That’s a concern when you’ve got a point guard like Isaiah who comes in with Nate. How is it going to work? And they’re really, really close. I think Isaiah has that personality and Nate’s got that confidence that they both want to make each other better. Dupree (McBrayer) being hurt has helped (them play together in practice). I’ve done different lineups and put them together. Looked pretty good.
Q: What do you think we will see from Mason this year?
A: The word you use for Nate is he’s solid. You can trust him on the court. It’s just something about consistency. He’s really, really good. But I think that from watching him. He’s moving away from solid to becoming a really, really good player. And you can tell he wants to take that next step whatever it is. But when he’s good, we’re really good. He’s evolving just as a leader. We’re so on the same page. It’s easy to coach. You don’t get that unless you’ve worked through it for three years. And we’ve done that.
Q: How much was Mason’s hip hurting in the NCAA tourney loss to Middle Tennessee?
A: I probably underrated it. Because he wasn’t playing well and he’s a tough kid, a quiet kid. But he was out for two months after the game. He was in a lot of pain. He just wanted to fight through it. He’s not the type of guy who is going to say, ‘you got to take me out.’ When Akeem got hurt we were in trouble from a depth standpoint. And then when Nate got hurt and I had to get him out it was really, really hard. He was in a lot of pain but you would never know during the game he was fighting it.
Q: Who plays point guard when Washington and Mason play together?
A: They can both play (point guard), but it’s a matter of who can remember the plays as silly as it sounds from my standpoint. I always try from my ones and twos, we run through the plays and switch the positions around. I have my fours and fives do the same. I have my twos and threes (do the same). They have to be ready, right. So there’s not a significant difference besides bringing the ball up. We have so many different types of plays that end somewhat similar through different positions. I could tell Nate right now play the two and he’ll know every play and understand it. Isaiah’s not going to know it right now. So that’s why moving Nate over there at times makes more sense. But again it’s very, very early.
Q: How do you feel about such a tough nonconference schedule?
A: Two true road games is difficult. That’s hard to do in nonconference. We built it for a team that we thought would be our best team. Miami I know it may not have, everybody thought we were going to get duke type name, but Miami is a really, really good opponent at home. Alabama is a really talented team. At Arkansas and Providence and then Harvard at home is a really tough game. To go along with two Big Ten games in December is a lot, but I think we have the team to do it. I really do. These guys if we stay healthy they’ll be ready for it.
Q: What did Murphy work on this offseason?
A: A little bit of everything. Evolve and get a little better. Everybody talks about shooting. He’s working on that. He’s getting better at that – expanding his game. Getting a little bit quicker. I think that’s something we’ve worked on. But then getting good at what you’re good at. Continue to get better at that. Understand where you’re bread is buttered. Don’t consume yourself with three-point line, etc. We’ll work on that and develop that but understand where you had success. He’s had a really, really productive summer.