I consider my colleague Sam Werner a friend, but the fact that he titles all of his Pitt football practice blog posts 'Talkin Bout Practice" is something I will never forgive him for, mostly because it means I can't do it.
Anyway, Andy Toole and select players were made available to the media today after practice. With the NEC championship game almost 24 hours away, I'll let A.I. kick things off...
And away we go.
Does anything change for your team in terms of preparation, given what a big game is is? “That’s what we’ve talked about all year. It has nothing to do with conference tournament time, it doesn’t have to do with anything except that’s how you have to play all year long. You can’t get emotionally too high, you can’t get emotionally too low. You have to go do the things you’re capable of doing and the things we work on every day. Obviously, with the atmosphere surrounding this game, it makes it a little more of a challenge at times, but it’s something we talk about all year long of playing the way we can play, doing the things we can do, controlling the things we can control. Then we’ll give ourselves the best chance to be successful.”
What makes Mount St. Mary's such a consistently good program? “They have good coaching staffs. Obviously Milan Brown, who’s now at Holy Cross, did a great job when he was there. Jim Phelan before that was a legendary coach. Jamion is doing a terrific job. He’s got talented players, he’s got them playing hard, he’s got them playing together and he’s got them playing a good system. They play very well come tournament time and they always have.”
Do you slow them down? Can you play their game? “I don’t think we can play that game as well as they play that game. They obviously like to make the game frenetic. It can be chaotic and speed you up, make you take quick shots. It’s not that we won’t take advantage if we have advantages because we have some guys that can maybe get some looks in those kind of conditions and make plays in those situations. But we don’t want to play as fast as they play. We don’t want to play slow, but we don’t want to play as fast.”
Do you change anything from your past two meetings this season? “Obviously, there are things you have learned from the past meetings that you’re going to try to not necessarily exploit, but maybe lean toward. The problem is making sure guys can handle it in two days. You have to be smart about what you might change or what you might add or what kind of situations you might put guys in. You can’t all of a sudden throw completely new ideas or concepts at them and expect them to be successful at it versus something you’ve been doing for months on end. There are obviously some things we would like to try to tweak, things we can obviously do better. I’m sure they look at it the same way and say ‘We were successful with this in the first game or second game, maybe it’s something we can go to.’ I think both teams will try to figure those things out. Then it will be a battle of who can adjust on the fly during the course of a game to either limit something they’re trying to do or continue to do something that’s allowing you to be successful.”
Does their style of play translate well to these kind of tournaments? “I think obviously if you look at the success of the people who are doing it, it translates well to all games. You look at what VCU has done, you look at Tennessee-Chattanooga, who has an assistant from VCU. They had a great season in the Southern Conference. Then obviously what Mount has done. It’s just a unique style that if you’re not ready for, it’s difficult to face. It’s a unique style that, even if you have a lead or feel like you’re getting some good things early, it can take its toll on you and eventually turn the tide. It’s something that we’ve seen a number of times, we’ve had success against it on a few occasions, they’ve had success on a few occasions. It will be a good battle tomorrow night to see whose style and whose system can be better.”
Thoughts on tomorrow? “I’m very excited. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to even have a chance to play tomorrow. We feel very confident in our chances of winning. We’re very secure in our gameplan and people we have in our locker room and in our uniforms. We’ve just got to go out there and get it done.”
Is it weird to think about what could be coming up? “It is, but we’ve got to try hard not to think about the end of the game until that time comes. We have to focus hard on winning the game first. Preparing and getting ready to actually play the game is what’s been on our minds. I think the start of the game and going into the game is the weirder feeling. Actually being able to go out there and step on the floor for a championship game is the feeling we have going through our bodies right now. We’ll worry about the court storming and all that stuff when the time comes.”
As an athlete, is this kind of a dream scenario? Win and you’re in? “It definitely is. Going to the NCAA tournament has been all of my teammates’ dream, including myself. It’s the reason we play this game at this level. In other conferences, they have to wait for Selection Sunday to see if they get a bid. To have the chance to control your own destiny is something we feel very confident in. It’s a good feeling. It’s on us if we get in or not.”
What makes Rashad Whack so effective on defense? “With him, the most difficult part is actually getting the ball. Once I get the ball, I feel like I can do what I need to do against whoever is guarding me, but he does a very good job of not allowing me to get the ball. He probably does the best individual job of doing that in the league.”
Is there any pressure as the one seed? “Last year was a little different. We had so much experience on that team that I don’t think we really felt like there was pressure. I’m not really sure what happened, but it just kind of fell apart for us at the end. But this year, the only pressure we have is the pressure we put on ourselves. We worked so hard to be put in this position that it would hurt us individually if we didn’t succeed.”
Is there any extra pressure knowing it's your last chance? “As I said, this is my dream right here. Unless something crazy like the Kentucky thing happens, it’ll probably be my final game here no matter what happens. We have a very high sense of urgency tomorrow. We just want to go out there and have fun. Like we said last year with the Kentucky game, ‘Win or lose, leave everything you’ve got out on the floor, empty your tanks.’ That’s why half the team was cramping last year. Just leave everything you’ve got on the floor and we’ll be happy with the result.”
Does this kind of game sort of exemplify the 'going to war' motif you all came up with? “The coaches came up with this from the start of the tournament. They got a new motto – ‘We’re going to war each and every game.’ And to play Mount in the championship, who ended our season-long hope of making the NCAA tournament, it just puts more emphasis on why we really wear these shirts.”
How do you prepare for the game? “Enjoy the rest of your day. Life is too short to be stressing about a basketball game that we have to go out and play hard and have fun in. These are the times like this that people come to college to play for.”
Any pressure as the one seed? “I wouldn’t say there was pressure. We were lucky enough to finish number one because of the hard work we put in. In my opinion, we didn’t take Mount as seriously as we needed to. With us being the number-one seed, we thought we had everything in the bag because we had home court and it’s hard to beat us at home. This year, they went on the road and first, they came back by 20 to a New York team who was very physical. Then they went to Wagner and beat them. We’ve got to understand this is a dangerous, dangerous conference. Anybody can win at any given time.”
With having eight guys, does their pressing style become that much more difficult? “Not really. We played them at their house the first time and not much has changed. The only thing that’s changed that was on the court was Jeremiah Worthem, who really helped us out. In the second game, we had to adjust without him. We just took our time. If they’re going to press us, they’re wearing themselves out as well. We’re going to take it play by play and just take our time. We’re not going to rush anything because we’ve seen what happens when we rush – we turn the ball over and do chaotic stuff. That’s what they want us to do. We’re just going to go out there, go with our game plan and try to be successful at it.”