Rick Pitino compared the atmosphere at Panathinaikos to that of his old Kentucky home after he won his EuroLeague debut as coach of the Greek basketball club on Friday, 96-84 over CSKA Moscow.
Pitino may be thousands of miles from Kentucky‘s Rupp Arena, where he coached from 1989-90 to 1996-97, or KFC Yum! Center, where he worked as Louisville coach until his firing last year, but he said the enthusiastic crowd in Athens had a familiar feel.
“It reminded me of Kentucky,” he said after the game. “Just like that, and that’s the highest compliment I give any crowd. Because I’ve always felt that in Kentucky basketball is a religion, and the fans tonight motivated us to play that type of defense.”
The Hall of Fame coach, who was fired after 17 years at Louisville amid an FBI investigation into recruiting, took over Panathinaikos a week ago in a move he sees as a steppingstone to return to coaching in the NBA.
“I’m really impressed. It’s an honor to coach this team,” Pitino said after the game. “I said to the owner of the team, he congratulated me, and I said, ‘It’s my honor and I thank you for having me.'”
Pitino prepared for the game by watching film of five games, and he said it became immediately clear that Panathinaikos needed to improve its defense and passing. A clip posted by the league showed Pitino ripping into his team Friday for standing around on offense, and he said afterward that creating movement on offense was his primary objective.
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“My message to them was that, in watching five films, you can’t win playing the type of defense that you’re playing,” he said. “The second thing I told them is, ‘Everybody says you guys can’t shoot. That’s not true’ — I put them through some shooting drills. I said, ‘You guys can shoot, the problem is you can’t pass.’ I said, ‘Because you’re averaging 13 assists per game and four guys are watching one. If you get ball movement and you constantly pass the basketball, you’ll outshoot them from the 3-point line. And tonight we had 20 assists, we outshot them by 3 points, and they’re an outstanding shooting team.
“So it’s not the shooting woes, it’s the passing woes, and tonight they were great.”
Half of those Panathinaikos assists came from former Florida standout Nick Calathes, who was named to the all-EuroLeague team last year.
“Calathes, I don’t know what they pay him, but he’s worth every penny they pay him, because he has the stamina like I haven’t seen from very few players,” Pitino said.
Panathinaikos improved to 7-8, good for 11th in the 16-team league at the halfway point in the season, after the impressive result over third-place CSKA, which dropped to 11-4. The top eight teams make the playoffs, which begin in April.
Calathes said Pitino’s presence had made a difference as Panathinaikos earned only its fifth win in its past 18 tries against CSKA since 2011.
“You could tell we were more hungry out there, we were more tenacious, defensively, offensively,” he said. “You know, it was just a great win and hopefully, everything will build off this for the next games.”
Pitino said his only issue so far was trying to pronounce his players’ names, so he settled on nicknames such as “Skywalker” for Lukas Lekavicius and “The Flash” for Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the older brother of NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Pitino was also welcomed to the league by Kyle Kuric, his former player at Louisville who is now with Barcelona.
“So good to see coach doing what he loves! Great win @Rick_Pitino!!,” Kuric wrote on Twitter. “Welcome to @EuroLeague, see you in a few weeks!”