How has your role as an assistant coach evolved?
“Coach (Anderson) and I talked about that. He was open at the end of the season that he expects more from all of us this year, but me in particular. Coming in last year as an assistant coach – it was really the first time I’ve been an assistant, obviously at this level. It was a new experience for me. You feel like you want to fit in and not step on any toes. So I didn’t know what was too much, what was too little… I think it was a learning experience for everyone. (Coach Anderson) and I have agreed that I will talk until he says to shut up. I bring a lot to the table. For me, it’s just being more vocal with ideas.”
The team looks like it’s a little smaller than you may like, but does that open things up with the offense?
“The two things that we have this year that we didn’t have last year is we have playmakers and shooters… And when we were recruiting, that’s what we went out to get. We probably are a little undersized, but if you think about our conference – outside of Kentucky – nobody really has centers. Most of the centers in the league are 6-foot-8-inches. There’s not really any true back-to-the-basket guys anymore. So, you don’t get hurt as much as you might think you would by being undersized. We wanted guys that could penetrate – we got guys that can penetrate. We wanted guys that could shoot – we got guys that can shoot. Now we have to create spacing for those guys to get in the lane and create shooting opportunities for others. With Terrence Phillips, Wes Clark, Tramaine Isabell and Martavian Payne – those guys can all get two feet in the paint. (Kevin) Puryear is a pick and pop guy that can really shoot. Cullen (Van Leer) doesn’t miss. I just think we have a lot of guys – with KJ (Walton) that can shoot, Namon (Wright) that can shoot. We’re a totally different team than we were last year. Last year, we had a couple guys that the ball stuck with. This year, it won’t do that. These guys are making the extra pass. And now, for us, we have to create the system – we don’t have to create it, it’s created. We just have to put it in.”
What kind of offense will you be running this year?
“Mike D’Antoni and I are from the same small town in Mullens, West Virginia. I have his playbook sitting up in my office. And a lot of people run it. At Iowa State, that’s what (Fred) Hoiberg ran. A lot of people run it, a lot of people use it because it creates mismatches. It lets guys play. But it’s all about reading what the defense gives you out of it. It’s extremely hard to guard because you have space. For us, it makes sense to do that. And it wouldn’t have last year.”
Will the offense look different to fans than it did last year?
“I would think it’s going to be a lot more up-tempo, a lot quicker. We don’t have a true 5, a true 4. (Ryan) Rosburg is probably a ‘true’ 5, and then Russell Woods is probably more of a 4 that will be playing a 5. And then Jakeenan (Gant) is probably a ‘true’ 4, but an athletic 4. Other than Ryan (Rosburg), those guys are face-up guys. When you put 4 and 5’s on the other team in pick-and-roll situations at the same time, it creates driving lanes, it creates bigs that can pull guys away. Jakeenan (Gant) is working on his face-up and rip-throughs. We’re going to run some of the same things that we did last year, but from an overall offensive standpoint, it’s going to be a little bit faster.”
Looking at the recruiting class, everyone seems to have a defined role. Is that what you were going for?
“We needed to get guys that could fill voids that we had last year. As you sit back and you look at the season we had last year – we just didn’t have enough playmakers. When we got open shots, we just didn’t make enough shots. Now, we have a competitive environment… Bob Knight used to call it ‘butt to brain.’ When things aren’t going well, at some point, your butt’s going to tell your brain to get off the bench. We have competition. We just didn’t have a lot of that last year. This year, we’re a lot deeper. And the makeup of the team is a lot different. I mean, we had to scheme last year just to stay in some games. And I think this year, it’s going to be a little more open.”
On paper, there seems to be 12 guys that are competing for playing time. Can that make things difficult when it comes to building a rotation?
“It’s competition. Guys will hold each other accountable. We’ll hold them accountable. But that’s what you have to create. You have to create an identity for the team. Coach wants to hold these guys accountable for their actions. And it’s not just off the court, but on the court. These guys have been great so far. And I think having too many players is a good problem to have. When I was in prep school, there were years when I had 8, 9, 10 division-1 players on my team. You can’t play that many guys. I had a kid going to Baylor that averaged 5 minutes per game. He averaged 5 minutes per game because he didn’t choose to work as hard as the guy that was playing 25 minutes.”
How has Tramaine Isabell evolved as a player and a person?
“He was suspended some games – I think it was good for him, because he matured. Some people will look at it and think, ‘he got suspended for x amount of games’, but when he came back, he’s been a totally different kid. It helped him understand that it’s more about the team than it is him. And he’s really matured. And, from that, he’s been a much better leader. It’s just the little things that we do as coaches. Like, ‘hey, make sure all the guys are at such and such at this time.’ I’ve let Tramaine take a role. Like, ‘hey, this is your week.’ or, we have to do this tonight. Make sure you text everybody.’ Just putting little leadership roles on him that last year, he wouldn’t have done. I probably had to text him to get him there, not have him get everyone else there. Just from a maturity standpoint, he’s been great so far.”
There were a lot of fans questioning the Cullen Van Leer signing. What should fans know about Cullen?
“He was a local kid that the national media had never heard of. They had never seen him play. I watched him play about seven games last spring. And we basically told coach, ‘hey, that’s exactly what we have to have.’ It’s a situation were – some guys get over-hyped in high school. We know that. And Cullen’s one of those guys that – night in and night out, opposing coaches are going to scout for him. Because, you can’t leave him open. Are we going to have to do some things defensively? Probably early on. But, he’s athletic. He can defend. But, it gets into a case where, even the local people look at it and they’re like, ‘he’s a three-star… He’s not a top 150 guy.’ But, I’ve said this before, you give me a three-star guy that wants to be a five-star guy instead of the five-star guy that works like a three-star any day of the week. And I think, for him, he buys into that. And you look at all of our freshmen – Terrence (Phillips), he wasn’t highly recruited. But he wants to prove that he belongs. KJ (Walton) is a four-star kid, but schools dropped off on him because his academics didn’t look like they were going to get in line. So, those guys have things to prove. With Cullen (Van Leer), he has things to prove within the state of Missouri. There are a lot of people within the state of Missouri that didn’t think he was good enough to be here. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s a really good player. He’s going to have a great career at Missouri. I told coach – coach was like, ‘well, I don’t know… He reminds me – and I hope he has the type of career that this kid has – the comparison I would probably put on him that people may relate to a little bit, is Ben Hansbrough. I think that’s what he will be by the end of his career.”