LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Rick Pitino’s game plan doesn’t include retirement any time soon.
The 61-year-old Louisville men’s basketball coach said Wednesday that he “can go for a long time” thanks to the enthusiasm provided by recent Cardinals recruiting classes.
Pitino said during a news conference discussing a roster that’s preparing to enter the tough Atlantic Coast Conference that his “passion and enthusiasm is better at 61 than it was at 31, and I had great passion back then.
“I think it’s the players the last four years that have enhanced that passion. … They stir my drink because they are so enthusiastic, so willing to learn and have such a great attitude.”
Pitino is signed through 2021-22 after agreeing to a five-year contract extension in October 2012. He would be 69 when it expires but sounds eager to coach beyond that age.
Stoking Pitino’s fire is the challenge of replacing high-scoring guard Russ Smith, perimeter threat Luke Hancock and reserves Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson, all members of Louisville’s 2013 NCAA championship squad who helped the Cardinals go 31-6 last season.
The coach believes it’s possible with a returning nucleus including forwards Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear; guards Chris Jones and Terry Rozier; and 6-foot-10 pivot man Mangok Mathiang. Reserves Anton Gill and Akoy Agau are also back.
Pitino praised the veterans’ improved conditioning as summer workouts began and is especially pleased with Jones’ 10-pound drop to around 176. The coach said he stressed losing the weight in order to become a quicker point guard and was proud of Jones’ commitment toward that end.
He said Harrell, one of the team’s best rebounders and dunkers, “doesn’t have to show he can score, he has to lead.”
Pitino also believes Blackshear, a former high school All-American, can finally fulfill his potential. If his improved aggression going to the basket is any indication, being named captain appears to have motivated him after an inconsistent junior season.
“It finally got through to him that the sand is running out in the hourglass,” Pitino said. “He has dedicated himself more in a short period of time than he has in three years combined.”
The Cardinals’ challenge is familiarizing six newcomers quickly and building the depth they’ll eventually need against ACC heavyweights such as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
Pitino has confidence in a top-10 recruiting class featuring 6-1 guard Quentin Snider, a Louisville native and Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball. Louisville has also signed 6-7 guard Shaqquan Aaron, 7-1 centers Anas Osama Mahmoud and Matz Stockman, 6-10 Chinanu Onuaku and 6-9 forward Jaylen Johnson.
Louisville’s needs to blend the mix in a hurry, especially with formidable non-conference schedule that includes Ohio State, Indiana and rival Kentucky. There’s also the intriguing season-opening matchup against NIT champion Minnesota, which is coached by former Louisville assistant and Pitino’s son, Richard.
It all gives the Louisville coach a sense of urgency.
“The positives are we’ve got a lot of talent and size,” he said. “The negative is we’ve got to get guys ready much quicker than ever before in my tenure as a basketball coach. … The schedule’s a bear, so we’ve got to get our guys ready physically and emotionally.”