The Pitino system

Richard Pitino puts his own twist on his legendary dad’s strategies.

Head coach Richard Pitino and his father Rick Pitino

Photo courtesy Louisville Athletics

Head coach Richard Pitino and his father Rick Pitino

by Jack Satzinger

Rick Pitino burst out of his seat in the final minutes of Minnesota’s 65-63 NIT championship victory in April. The Louisville head coach was situated just behind the bench and his son, Richard, yelling tips to the Gophers on the floor.

“He was just always trying to help us — give us different pointers and things. Trying to coach as well. It was pretty cool to have a legend in attendance,” Gophers guard DeAndre Mathieu said.

When the game ended, Rick Pitino emerged from the stands and posed with the NIT trophy alongside his son, Minnesota’s head men’s basketball coach. 

With the same slicked-back, black hairstyle, the father-son duo appeared scarily alike standing together on the Madison Square Garden floor. Richard Pitino even has a hint of Rick’s New York accent — and his sarcastic sense of humor.

But their similarities don’t end there. The Pitinos’ styles of play on the basketball court look the same, too.

When Louisville and Minnesota face off in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, on Friday night in the Armed Forces Classic, two programs with underrated, undersized guards and shot-blocking big men will take the court.

But the high-energy teams, led by coaches 30 years of age apart, will feature some slight differences as well.

Although Richard Pitino does many things just like his father, he deviates from Rick’s teachings at points, making him a different coach and a different man.

“[It’s] two great basketball minds just coming together,” Mathieu said about the upcoming game. “[Richard Pitino is] really intelligent, he knows the game well and you can tell his dad taught him a lot of that.”

Playing with guard-heavy lineups

A year before Richard Pitino won his NIT championship with the Gophers, Rick propelled Louisville to an NCAA title.

It was the second national championship for the elder Pitino, who has coached at the collegiate level and in the NBA since 1975.

Along the way, 27 of Rick Pitino’s former players and assistant coaches have become collegiate head coaches — including his son.

Richard Pitino came to Minnesota as head coach in April 2013. Before that, he was the head man at Florida International University for a season and an assistant under his father for two seasons at Louisville. He also worked as an assistant coach for Billy Donovan of Florida for two seasons.

When athletics director Norwood Teague searched for a new head coach last year after firing Tubby Smith — also a former Rick Pitino assistant — Donovan endorsed Richard for the job.

“Billy was obviously the big key for us,” said Mike Ellis, Minnesota’s executive associate athletics director.

While playing for Rick Pitino at Providence College, point guard Donovan led the Friars to an unlikely Final Four appearance in 1987. Elite guard play has always been the backbone of his system.

A pair of undersized but feisty guards, 6-footers Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, catalyzed Louisville’s 2013 championship.

The Cardinals’ backcourt this season may not carry the same cachet as Siva and Smith, but it is very talented in its own right with 5-foot-10-inch Chris Jones and 6-foot-1-inch Terry Rozier.

Richard Pitino’s starting backcourt is also undersized and talented with the 5-foot-9-inch Mathieu and 6-foot-2-inch Andre Hollins.

Together, the two Gophers guards average half an inch shorter than 6 feet tall, well below the average heights of other Big Ten starting guards.

Minnesota may not be in the national championship conversation this season, but Mathieu and Hollins are focused on playing like Siva and Smith did at Louisville.

“[Richard Pitino] used to talk to us about how they played two guards and how they were aggressive all the time,” Mathieu said. “I watched a lot of video of those two guys and tried to mimic how they played and the style of play they brought to the table because [Louisville] did win a national championship with those two guys. That’s a good philosophy to follow.”

Rick Pitino said having two smaller, quicker guards in his lineup allows his team to provide better ball pressure and force turnovers.

While Siva and Smith were excellent defensively — Louisville was second in the nation in steals per game in 2013 — starting two de-facto point guards together also allows for better ball handling and a more efficient offense.

“We want a lot of people to be able to hand the basketball, whether it’s the four man, the three man, the two or the one,” Rick Pitino said. “We’re a motion team, so I really emphasize that everybody’s got to be able to handle the ball.”

Minnesota is taking a similar approach with multi-guard lineups.

“Some practices we have three guards,” Gophers freshman Nate Mason said. “We’ll be able to control the game. Tempo, pace, everything.”

Rick and Richard Pitino’s strategy of playing multiple point guards together in a motion-oriented offense is fairly unique, but smaller backcourts appear to be on the rise in college basketball.

Last year, Connecticut won the national title behind 6-foot-1-inch Shabazz Napier and 6-footer Ryan Boatright.

With Mason already on the Gophers’ roster and guard Kevin Dorsey verbally committed, 6-foot-1-inch guard Jarvis Johnson announced in September that he would join the Gophers next season.

In most systems, there wouldn’t be room for Johnson. But his coach at DeLaSalle High School, Dave Thorson, said all three guards will have plenty of playing time in Richard Pitino’s guard-heavy system.

“As you look at how college basketball has evolved in the last couple of years, we’ve seen teams really playing with two lead guards,” Thorson said.

Players seem to enjoy the smaller, quicker lineups.

“It’s just a different style, and I like it,” Hollins said. “It’s dangerous. … That’s a different facet of our game that’s unique.”

Protecting the rim

Guards headlined Louisville’s championship team, but Rick Pitino also had a strong rim protector in Gorgui Dieng, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With Dieng in the fold, Siva and Smith were able to gamble in the passing lanes, spurring impressive steal totals. If they missed, their center was a formidable last line of defense.

“When we had Gorgui Dieng, it made our defense that much better,” Rick Pitino said.

Gophers center Elliott Eliason  has become a solid defender under Richard’s tutelage.

But Eliason, who swatted away nearly two shots per game last year, said playing defense as a center isn’t all about blocks.

“You’ve just got to stunt … or maybe slow up the ball to kind of get those guards enough time to get back and get in the defense. You try to do everything you can — alter shots if you can’t block it,” Eliason said.

With other returning center Mo Walker as more of an offensive weapon, Eliason is the Gophers’ best rim protector. But an elite shot blocker is taking form in Minnesota: Bakary Konate.

The Mali native spent one season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, where both Rick and Richard Pitino recruited him.

“I was really excited because I was very surprised both were interested in me,” Konate said.

Richard said the 6-foot-11-inch Konate is already further along as a player than Dieng was as a freshman. The athletic center almost went to Louisville, but Rick Pitino instead brought in other players.

“We just had an abundance of centers, so I recommended he go with Richard,” Rick Pitino said. “He’s not an immediate impact person, but he’ll develop into an outstanding basketball player.”

Winning with underrated players

Rick Pitino dedicated a full chapter of his most recent book, “The One-Day Contract: How to Add Value to Every Minute of Your Life,” to humility.

“When our players arrive at the University of Louisville, what I tell them is this: ‘High school is over. People telling you how great you are, undeserved praise, is not going to happen here. You are going to get praise for your work ethic,’ ” he wrote.

Teenage egos rule the world of college basketball recruiting.

After being wooed by many of the nation’s top coaches, some players enter the collegiate level expecting to be great right away without putting in the required effort.

“Few high school players come to college with humility,” Rick Pitino wrote. “We spend a lot of time on humility.”

Rick has coached plenty of players that come into college with five-star rankings and analysts projecting them to be NBA players.

But team leaders Siva and Dieng were four-star recruits, and Smith received just a three-star ranking.

Rick Pitino developed those three players into pros instead of getting what scouts deemed as the top-flight talent.

“We have built our program on the multiyear player who is committed to college basketball first,” he wrote. “We certainly have and will take young men whose goal is to spend only one or two years in college, but we do not build the program around them.”

Richard Pitino’s first conventional recruiting class at Minnesota features multiple three-star players that fit the style he wants the Gophers to play.

His second, which could end up adding one more player, includes the four-star Dorsey and follows a trio of three-star guys.

Minnesota doesn’t carry the same prestige as Louisville in recruiting and likely has little shot at any five-star players. But even though Richard Pitino has gone after highly sought recruits like Tyus Jones, Isaiah Whitehead and Allonzo Trier, he’s made it clear that he only targets players that he thinks are ready to learn and buy into his system.

“We’re Minnesota. I don’t know if we’re getting one-and-dones right now at the stage of our program building,” he said. “We need to have guys who don’t necessarily care about the press conference. They just want to come because they want to compete at a high level. … I think we target those [types] of guys.”

More than ‘Rick Pitino’s son’

When asked if the upcoming game with his father has been a talking point in the Pitino household, Richard joked he doesn’t live at home anymore.

“Everybody thinks that I leave here, I fly to Louisville, we have a turkey dinner,” he said.

It’s apparent that while Richard has a strong bond with his father, he sometimes grows tired of being known as “Rick Pitino’s son.”

“Being Rick Pitino’s son is not going to get me a win at Michigan State,” he said. “It doesn’t help a whole lot.”

Though the similarities between the two coaches are uncanny, Richard doesn’t operate the same way as his father all the time.

Before serving as an assistant at Louisville and Florida, he worked at Northeastern and Duquesne.

Richard Pitino’s experiences under other coaches have led him to slightly different strategies — and he isn’t afraid to give his father his opinion.

“Even when we were preparing for SMU, because Louisville had played SMU twice and beat them, big coach Pitino was telling [Richard] different things to do, and he was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to try it this way,’” Mathieu said. “They interact, but Coach Richard tries to bring his own style into it and not be exactly like his dad.”

Turkey dinners or not, Richard still finds time to see his father often.

They spent a handful of days golfing together during the summer at Interlachen Country Club, where Richard is a member. Playing just down the street from his Edina, Minn., home, the younger Pitino enjoyed home-field advantage.

When the Pitinos square off Friday night, they won’t be alone on the green. They’ll be on national television, manning opposing benches. But after founding Minnesota on his father’s philosophies and putting his own twist on them, Richard hopes the game’s results mirror their summer golf matches.

“He would normally get me,” Richard Pitino said. “The tide was turning a little bit on the golf course, and I think he was noticing it, so hopefully that carries over to basketball.”