In the early 2000s Riccardo Fois was with the national team together with Datome, Gallinari and Hackett. Today, at 30 years of age and after a “diversely fortunate” (in his own words) playing career, he is an assistant coach at Gonzaga, one of the winningest colleges in Ncaa history. When Fois talks about the university of Spokane, a city in the eastern part of the State of Washington, very close to the Idaho border, it seems like he is talking about a heavenly place where high level basketball and humanity go hand in hand.
He spoke to BasketballNcaa about his life, told a few anecdotes, he shared his thoughts about the Italians in the Ncaa and handed a few opinions on the current season, including on players.
Riccardo, let’s start with how you ended up in college.
Well, I’ve always been playing basketball. I was born in 1987 and was part of the Under 16 National Team with Gallinari, Hacket and Datome.
Are you still in touch with them?
Yes, with all of them. Datome and I grew up together in Olbia, we attended the same school, we did everything together from high school onward. When he played in Nba we could talk more often, but I keep in touch with all of them.
How did you end up at Gonzaga?
Once out of the junior sector I played in the Italian Serie B, at Osimo and Firenze, but if I had to put it mildly I’d say my career was diversely fortunate. That’s when I realized that Italian basketball was going south. Then they changed the standards for professional players in the Italian Minors, and I decided to try my luck in the USA, since I had already been there as a player.
Pepperdine University, in the 2007-08 season. Five years later I went back there. Coach Marty Wilson (current head coach, Ed.) was still there and he gave me the chance to be part of the coaching staff. I took a position as graduate manager. At the time, I also worked for Nbadraftnet and used to go around the world to scout Under-16 and Under-18 tournament.
How did you go from California to Spokane?
Well, that’s a funny story.
Do tell, please.
I was in Dallas during the 2014 Final Four weekend (that’s the Final Four where coach Kevin Ollie led Uconn to the title over Kentucky in his first year as head coach there, Ed.).
Were you working there?
No, I was there with a few friends to enjoy the event. By chance, I met Tommy Loyd, associate head coach at Gonzaga. While talking about European basketball, he told me that Domantas Sabonis would have played for the Bulldogs. Some time later, I told the story to a friend, who wrote it on Twitter. That was the first time I experienced the viral power of social media. In a few hours it was all over the world. I hadn’t even paid attention to it, I had forgotten. That evening I found Loyd waiting for me at the hotel, in front of the elevator.
Ouch. Was he angry?
To him, it was obvious who had let that slip, but he was not that angry. Actually, that episode probably allowed us to better know each other, to have a good laugh and become friends. Let’s say that I learned my lesson: it’s better to keep my mouth shut, even when I’m with friends.
And how did you go from this to joining the coaching staff at Gonzaga?
At the time I was going through the interview process to join the Cleveland Cavaliers coaching staff and Loyd knew it. In September I got to the last stage of the selection, but then they chose someone else. When Tommy learned that I had not got in, he offered me to join him at Gonzaga. They confirmed my after my first year, I guess that means it didn’t go that bad. [laughs]
Do you have a specific role as an assistant?
Coach Mark Few keeps a small staff, that includes him and six other people. Tasks are different from year to year. I usually take care of statistics, analytics, videos, player development, and finding specific area of improvement for the whole team.
Are you active in the recruiting process as well?
The Ncaa rules forbid me to talk directly to players, but I can make suggestions.
Do you enjoy your role?
Definitely. I was very lucky to get here. Coach Few is very open, more like [San Antonio Spurs head coach) Popovich. A kid that can play basketball is more important to him than a super athlete or a super specialist. That is why I believe we are a kind of college that teaches how to play a more European style. We look for complete players and focus on “skilled” power forwards, the kind of player that is very common in Europe.
How is life in Spokane?
It’s like being part of a family. I like a few hundred meters from the campus, it’s all about my job right now. And then there’s the Downtown to spend a day off. Most of the people here go to the lake, even coach Few has a house on the Idaho Lake and sometimes he invites us to his place. For a Sardinian native, the lake isn’t that great but I can’t complain.
The way you describe it, it seems like a happy community.
It is. The loyalty of the fans is incredible. The gym is always sold out (6,000 seats, Ed.), whether it’s snowing or storming. All the players that have been here, Pangos, Sacre, Olynyk, Sabonis, come back in here every summer to spend some time in the neighborhoods. The Gonzaga legacy is something that will stay with you. And then, you have to consider that college means private flights for road games and 5-stars hotels. You have everything you need and then some. Players and coaching staff are taken care of.
There must be some kind of negative.
The good and the bad is that there are endless ways to think about basketball. It is beautiful because these differences force you to think of new ways to prepare every game.
And the bad?
There are styles that are part of an older era. Sometimes I have the feeling that a few coaches and staffs are not as up to date as it would seem obvious to.
Mind to offer an example?
Princeton and the proverbial Pinceton offense. The ideas do work. But I also think of a player who has to execute that kind of offense for 40 minutes, and if I was in his shoes, I think it would probably be too much.
The season is all about the Final Four and the title. It’s not like in football, where every game is worth something, where the regular season is just as important. In here, it’s like if you did not reach the Final Four it was all worthless. Sometimes they tell us “isn’t it bothering you never made the Final Four?”. Of course it is. But since I got here, three years ago, we lost a grand total of 11 games.
I’ll be that guy who says Gonzaga plays in a weaker conference.
Fair enough, but 18 consecutive conference titles are no joke, even in a weaker conference. When other teams play us, they play their best. There are teams that would consider their season as a positive if they win against us.
Have you ever thought about switching conference?
The biggest problem with that is that we have no football team. It is hard to be admitted to a conference like the Pac-12 without it. There are conferences like the Mountain West that do accept application from universities that only have basketball, but it would not be that big of a jump. Another idea that had been discussed was a sort of “Western Big East” that would include colleges like Creighton, Saint Mary’s or Wichita State. But it’s all talks, at least for now. But being part of a more balanced conference with better media coverage has a few advantages even in the recruiting part.
Speaking of Saint Mary’s, you won quite easily against your best opponent. Is this game more felt than others?
Not more than the others. Sure, winning at home is important.
What’s your opinion of their team?
It’s a very well coached team, we are kind of similar. They have a strong focus on foreign recruiting as well, their connection with Australia is very solid. It made us a bit nervous before the game. We were #5 in the ranking, still undefeated, expectations were high.
And after that win you reached #4 in the ranking. Are these expectations a positive or a negative?
Wins help the team’s and player’s confidence, help building a winning culture. But there’s no drama in a loss. Two years ago we had a super team with plenty of experience and we lost the last game in regular season against BYU. That loss was a good thing for us, and we played a great Ncaa tournament, losing in the Elite Eight against Duke (who went on to win the title). It feels good to be 17-0 and undefeated, but there’s some good in losses as well.
Gonzaga played very well against Saint Mary’s.
We are 17-0 and we are happy about that, but if I had to be honest I’d tell you we are not playing our best basketball yet. We were not expecting freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie to be this ready, nor Silas Melson improving so much from year to another. We still have plenty of room to grow.
Which player at roster is not talked that much about and will break through in the near future?
I have no doubts it will be Rui Hachimura. If we weren’t 17-0 he would have had more minutes.
How good is he?
I’ll tell you that… well, I don’t want to overhype it, but he is 6-6 and has a huge wingspan. Considering his body, it seems like he dances on the floor, and the way he moves he might remind of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Japan finished 14th at the 2014 Wold Cup but he was the top scorer of the tournament and averaged 22.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Unbelievable.
How would you describe Gonzaga’s playing style?
As a staff, we change a lot from game to game. We change 10 different plays every game.
Before every game?
Yes, that’s why we need smart players. We have a general group of plays and we add variations and wrinkles to each of them accordingly. For example, prior the the Saint Mary’s game we added 5 new plays. This also helps understand what kind of player we have, their abilities to adjust to a new play. That’s why Sabonis was part of the starting five right away.
Because he is so smart. If you tell him “you do this, then move there and do this other thing”, the following possession he steps on the court and does exactly what he’s been told to do. That’s something coach Billy Donovan immediately loved.
Let’s talk about the Italians in the Ncaa.
We wanted to recruit Mussini for Gonzaga, we were intrigued, but he made his own choice.
Was it a good choice?
He chose to play in a strong conference and be part of a strong tradition. He is very competitive.
I keep a good eye on De Nicolao. He made a different choice, not as cool, more people-friendly, but it’s still a competitive conference.
What about Akele and Rhode Island?
He is developing into a very good role player who can do the right thing at the right time. Maybe that kind of player would do better in a more talented team, where he can be the fifth player on the court and do his job.
What about the others? Vercellino? Oliva? Da Campo? Ulaneo?
I’m not as up to date on them. I watched Vercellino earlier in the year and it looked like he was doing well, but I noticed his minutes are going down. Oliva is injured but I kept an eye on him last year, if he had to return without consequences he can do well. I believe Ulaneo has been doing well, while Da Campo is struggling to find playing time, but I can’t tell you much more than that.
Which team, in your opinion, is playing the best basketball?
I have great respect for Villanova and coach Jay Wright. They really do things well. They recruit only a few players, but they are the right one. They talk on defense, they move the ball. They really do nothing wrong.
UCLA seems to have found the right formula. I also have to admit I was not a big fan of Lonzo Ball, but he made me change my mind. We played Washington recently and I had the chance to have a good look at Markelle Fultz, but I think Ball is better.
Before talking about the players, what other teams impressed you so far?
I think that, as incredible as it might sound, Kentucky is underrated. This season their offense is different, they are looser. And I thought Adebayo was the usual center who got there because of his physical tools, but he is more than that.
Well, Florida State is very talented and very athletic. I think it might be a surprise. But it’s too easy to say that now, I should have said that 3 months ago [laughs]
Speaking of surprises, what do you think of Baylor?
We did play a preseason game against them and it was a tie. I was aware of how good we are, and after the game I told myself “either we are not that good, or they will be much better than what people think”.
Which team might be the hardest to play for Gonzaga?
Kentucky and Duke, obviously. They have few and simple plays, but everything works to perfection. People rarely understands how good is coach K at keeping things simple. And they are devilishly good at getting to the free-throw line.
Are you being critic?
No. Seriously. It’s a skill. We don’t get to the free-throw line as much as we should or could. But now that I think of it, there is one team that I really wouldn’t like to play.
West Virginia. It’s a crazy team, in a good sense. You can play them only if you beat their pressing and keep your scoring momentum. The first easy layup you miss, they feel energized. And if they get into your head, you are toast.
Let’s talk about the players. You shared your thoughts on Ball and Adebayo, who else impressed you so far?
Well, Luke Kennard is amazing. And I like Josh Hart as well. I don’t know if he will have an Nba career, but if he couldn’t make it, he is ready to play in Europe right away. He has everything to be great.
About Saint Mary’s, Jock Lansdale is having a great season.
Well, he is a good player, but the Gels’s system is really great. They are very accurate in their spacing and that makes their center better. It happened in the past with other Saint Mary’s centers, like Waldow. It is hard to project these players outside of their system.
Just for fun, context and team don’t matter. You are an Nba GM and you have the first round pick. What’s your choice?
Today I would say Lonzo Ball, he seems the kind of player who can change the whole franchise. At the end of the day, Nba teams chose players that either bring what they are lacking, be it shooting or rebounding, or they look for those players who can change the whole franchise. I think he is the latter.
Let’s roll with a few other names.
I would say Markelle Fultz or Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith’s performances were perplexing to a few of us here at BN.
Yes, it might be that he did not handle a few in-game situations as well as he might have, but I have been keeping an eye on him since high school, before the injury, and he is unbelievable.
A player that does not seem that good right now but might be truly good in the future?
Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac. I’m not that impressed right now, but in three years he look like a less talented version of Kevin Durant.
Your thoughts Duke’s Jayson Tatum?
I’m not that high on him. He is good, but not as explosive as I think an Nba All-Star should be.
Last question, where do you see yourself in a few years?
My goal is to be a head coach. I’m working hard to get there.