I had the chance to catch up with FIU basketball coach Richard Pitino on Friday afternoon before the Panthers left for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. FIU enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed and earned a first round bye. The Panthers play against UALR, a team they split two games with this season, at 7 p.m on Saturday night. Here is what the FIU coach had to say:
PP: Your thoughts on your team as they enter the tournament?
RP: We had some great practices this week. I think they are going to be ready. I think this time of year everybody is going to physically give it their all. More than anything now I think you have to have an advantage mentally. Hopefully, we have done a good job of preparing them for that.
PP: In the two matchups this year against UALR, you guys lost in Little Rock, but then beat the Trojans here in Miami. What were the differences in those two games?
RP: They were two different games. I thought at their place they absolutely beat us in every phase possible. We turned them over, but other than that we didn't do a good job of rebounding, of defending. The second time around I thought we played really good halfcourt defense. We did a very good job of rebounding the basketball because they are so much bigger than us at every position. [Saturday] it's going to really come down to defensive rebounding.
PP: I would imagine you would want to run on them because of the size differential?
RP: Yeah, that's kind of been our deal the whole year. One thing we have is we have speed. We have to try and turn teams over defensively and convert off of that. If we get bogged down in the halfcourt game that's not our strength.
PP: What are your thoughts on being one of the finalists for the Joe B. Hall Coach of the Year Award?
RP: It's nice that we are getting some recognition. When they say I am nominated for that I laugh because so much goes into what we do on a daily basis as a staff. This team has allowed me to be a coach this year. They have listened to every word I have said. When we get any type of recognition you look back at what these guys have done and what the staff has done.
PP: Before heading into the tournament, what are some of your thoughts on the regular season where you guys were picked to finish second to last and you end up the No. 4 seed in the tournament with a bye, play over. 500 basketball and win the most Sun Belt games in program history?
RP: People ask me about the rebuilding process and I tell them it's not a rebuilding, it's a building process. This has never been to where we want it to be. With that being said, they took care of, in my opinion, year one of what I was hoping we would do. We were picked second to last. We finished fourth. We got a bye in the conference tournament and did that with a bunch of guys we put together in two weeks. I look back at it all the time. My first few days on the job I had five [FIU players] come in and tell me they were transferring. I had three guys left over who were scholarship players. Tymell Murphy, I got from knowing his coach. I went to college with his coach. Malik Smith, I've known his AAU coach for the last 15 years. Jerome Frink, we heard about. We really didn't have a lot of time to get a team together so it wasn't normal circumstances. It would be different if we had a year to recruit and a year to evaluate guys or if we had a bunch of leftover players. No, we had to do this with building a team in two weeks so it was extremely difficult. People have been great, but I don't think they quite understand how hard it really was.