Rick Pitino is taking on another rebuilding project.
The only men’s college basketball coach to lead three teams to the Final Four has agreed to coach the Puerto Rico national team next summer in the FIBA Tournament of the Americas with an eye toward qualifying for the 2012 Olympics.
“It’s a tall order and that’s why I’m taking it,” the Louisville coach said Monday. “If they were already in (the Olympics), I wouldn’t do it. Their backs are to the wall.”
Puerto Rico must finish in the top two in next summer’s tournament to travel to London in 2012. Pitino met with Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea and Miami Heat point guard Carlos Arroyo — both Puerto Rico natives — in Miami on Sunday to gauge their interest and came away impressed.
“These guys, playing for the national team is the biggest thing in the country,” Pitino said. “They are very, very passionate about it and that was a major factor for me.”
Puerto Rico last qualified for the Olympics in 2004, finishing sixth in a tournament that included a win over the United States.
Pitino is not the first high-profile American coach to pursue this course. Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson unsuccessfully tried to get Mexico into the 2008 Olympics, and longtime NBA coach Del Harris led China to an eighth-place finish in the 2004 Olympics.
Though he has no international coaching experience, Pitino doesn’t expect a difficult transition. He plans to bring the uptempo system he’s used with great success at Providence, Kentucky and Louisville to Puerto Rico.
“They’re a lot similar to the way we play,” he said. “They get up and down the floor quickly.”
Pitino and Louisville director of operations Ralph Willard will select the rest of the 12-man squad.
Willard played a vital role in bringing Pitino and Puerto Rico together. Puerto Rico basketball official Joel Katz, who played at Syracuse in the 1980s while Willard was an assistant under Jim Boeheim, reached out to Willard to ask him if he thought Pitino would be interested.
Initially, Pitino was skeptical. He had so little knowledge of the Puerto Rico basketball hierarchy he joked he thought federation president Carlos Beltran was the outfielder for the New York Mets who goes by the same name. He invited team officials to watch the Cardinals practice to get an idea on whether he would be a good fit.
“We told them how we would organize things and it just went from there,” Pitino said.
Other than a per diem, Pitino will not receive compensation for taking the job. There are, however, other benefits.
He plans to have the national team practice in Louisville against the Cardinals next summer before taking both teams to the Bahamas for a round-robin tournament. NCAA rules allow programs one foreign trip every four years, and Pitino called the 10 practice days that accompany the trip invaluable.
“We’re going to be able to play against the national team 2-3 times and play against NBA-type players,” he said. “That’s going to be great for our incoming freshmen.”
Pitino doesn’t anticipate preparations cutting into his recruiting time. The Cardinals have already locked up four players for the 2011 freshman class and could have the 2012 class locked by the spring.
He joked the only Spanish he knows are the words uttered by former Louisville stars Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa and doesn’t expect there to be any sort of communication barrier.
“They understand their backs are to the wall as players and they’ve got to finish in the top two to qualify for the Olympics,” he said. “It’s very similar to Kentucky in the fact everybody there is so passionate about basketball. It will be a great challenge.”