Louisville begins 9-game tour vs. Puerto Rico national teams
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Rick Pitino's loyalty and attention will be divided this week.
The Louisville coach will guide Puerto Rico's junior and national teams in a six-day, nine-game exhibition tour starting Tuesday against his Cardinals, who will be led by assistant coaches. Pitino is preparing the national squad for the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City later this month in a quest to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, but he also wants to develop a young Louisville roster that lost four regulars from last season.
''It's just tiring, I'll be honest with you,'' Pitino said last week of the dual challenge. ''Puerto Rico is really helping develop our season, and Louisville's helping get them ready to qualify for the Olympics.''
Fifth-year senior transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis provide experience, and Pitino hopes the packed schedule will build cohesion. He likes the chemistry he has seen so far, saying, ''This is the best attitude I've seen since I've been coaching.''
That's a bold statement by the Hall of Famer, who has won NCAA championships at Louisville and Kentucky and coached Providence to the 1987 Final Four. But considering the Cardinals must replace forward Montrezl Harrell and guard Terry Rozier - both drafted by the NBA - along with forward Wayne Blackshear and guard Chris Jones, jelling quickly is critical for Louisville as it prepares for Year 2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Louisville returns sophomore guard Quentin Snider and 6-foot-10 Chinanu Onuaku, who helped the U.S. Under-19 team win the gold medal at the World Championships. Junior forward Mangok Mathiang, also 6-10, competed with Australia at the World University Games.
International competition has raised both post players' performances, with Pitino particularly impressed by Mathiang's growth.
''He has made even greater strides than'' Onuaku, the coach said, ''not that Nanu hasn't made strides. But Mangok's footwork has gotten much better, (and) his mid-range jump shot has improved.''
Two weeks of workouts in Louisville against Puerto Rico have also raised Pitino's opinions of 6-6 forward Lee and 6-2 guard Lewis. Lee arrives after ranking fourth nationally last season in scoring at 21.4 points per game with Drexel; Lee averaged 16.3 points and 2.9 assists per contest last year at Cleveland State.
Both additions will be important for Louisville after losing so much offense, and Pitino praised Lee's ability to ''put points up, something so needed on this year's team.'' The coach added that Lewis brings ''incredible leadership'' and physical toughness, especially in the lane.
Though Pitino noted that the Cardinals will have a size advantage against Puerto Rico, their opponents are more experienced and feature NBA veterans such as Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Berea. Louisville must also adjust to playing with international rules such as: a 24-second shot clock like the NBA; shooting 3-pointers from 20 feet, 6 1/4 inches instead of 19-9; and four 10-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves.
The first three days could provide the toughest challenge for both teams, who will play doubleheaders with Louisville splitting its roster for games against the junior and national teams.
That schedule means a lot of minutes for the Cardinals and plenty of time for Pitino to see what his rotations might be next season. But there'll be no mistaking his priority of guiding Puerto Rico deep into international competition with a shot at qualifying for the Summer Games in Brazil.