UT-Arlington assistant coach Keith Pickens had spent his entire basketball career in the state of Missouri. The St. Louis native played at Missouri State and played in 111 career games with the Bears. He began his coaching career there in Springfield, Mo., before moving to Southeast Missouri.
Pickens spent the last five seasons with the Redhawks and helped lead them to the Ohio Valley Conference championship and the NCAA Tournament last season. He is now in his first season on KT Turner’s staff at UTA.
Pickens recently spoke with Mid-Major Madness’ Ian Sacks. Below is their conversation:
Ian Sacks: You’re in your first season at UTA. What brought you there?
Keith Pickens: Just opportunity and the people. Being able to work for and with KT Turner. He obviously has a tremendous rep as being one of the best assistant coaches out there, and then now he gets the chance of being a head coach.
We knew a lot of mutual people. I didn’t know him. I had met him a year before, but I didn’t know him that well. But we knew a lot of the same people that were able to speak highly about me, and they were able to speak highly about him.
The opportunity presented itself, and I couldn’t turn it down. I couldn’t look away.
IS: A long time in the state of Missouri, a native of Missouri, played college ball there, coached there for a number of years. What is it about the state of Missouri that so near and dear to your heart?
KP: I was born and raised in St. Louis. I go to college at Missouri State and then I get my first opportunity at Missouri State. Then I go to SEMO.
So, just being able to recruit at home and being able to take care of home for as many years as I’ve been doing it, that was always a positive. It was a positive for me to be able to recruit guys that come from a similar background where I came from, so that was always near and dear to me, and I never took it for granted.
IS: How did those local connections of being throughout this state for so many years help you in terms of recruiting?
KP: For me, it was more so getting to know people because I didn’t come from a background where I was known in the AAU world. I played one year of AAU in high school, so I didn’t know a ton of people and a ton of people didn’t know me.
I was a low-profile guy that got recruited and took advantage of the opportunity. So, when I got into this situation, for me, it was continuing to build relationships and get to know people, maybe players that play for the high-level AAU teams may already know and the connection they may already have. I didn’t have those. So, I was continuously and constantly working to get to know these people.
They knew my name, but they didn’t really know me. So, just continuing getting to know those people, so I can then recruit their players, and they have a respect level for me and what I do. That was my biggest thing: just continuing to get to know people and build relationships with coaches and programs.
IS: What challenges did that pose of you mentioned how you didn’t really have those connections that one might think that you would have had? What challenges did that pose for you?
KP: More so, it was just put my head down and working, like not being afraid to reach out to certain people – people have a stature that I didn’t necessarily know before. Just going in and being 100% confident in myself and my abilities and the guys I worked for, being able to vouch for them. It’s ultimately they’re sending their players to play for a head coach. And I want to be able to feel good about bringing those kids to those programs and knowing and making them feel confident that it was a situation that those kids could have confidence in and flourish to the best of their abilities.
IS: You played your college ball at Missouri State. We already kind of touched on that. What was it about that program that inspired you to play there and then ultimately stay on the staff after graduating?
KP: I was recruited by Cuonzo Martin and his staff, and I got the opportunity to be with those guys for two years. Coach Martin really got me to Missouri State. He and Jon Harris, who was one of his assistant coaches, I was 100% in. I believed in them all the way. We had a great couple of years with him.
And then after that, Coach Paul Lusk came in from Purdue, where Cuonzo came from his first before he got the head coaching job. Coach Martin let me know. He’s like, ‘Hey, Paul Lusk is going to be a great coach for you. It’s a great spot for you to continue to be.’
When he told me that I was 100% in with Coach Lusk, I gave him everything I got even though I endured a ton of injuries.
And Coach Lusk felt good enough about me having an opportunity to be a graduate assistant to begin my coaching career. And then after two years as a graduate assistant, he felt good enough about me taking the next leap of being an assistant coach.
So, it was a quick climb for me, but it was all about the people and being with the right people and believing in my abilities and my work ethic.
IS: I wanted to dive a little more into experiencing that coaching change as a player and staying with the program that you initially committed to. What kind of decision was that and what type of crossroads did you feel like you were experiencing during that time?
KP: When Coach Martin left, I was devastated. I was very sad. It was an emotional time just because you got to know somebody. They got to know you well, and that you believed in and that believed in you. And then it all changes so fast.
But then you understand the professional side and the business side and the opportunity Coach Martin had for him and his family. You understand that.
Now the part about bringing in another coach that you’re unsure about. You could go transfer to a coach that recruited you in the past, but it was something about being with people that you trust in. Coach Martin trusted him, and I trusted Coach Martin. So, it was easy for me to not think the grass is greener on either side.
And by the end, I had built great relationships with people in the community of Springfield, Mo., and I wanted to continue to give them my all. I never thought about transferring after that point.
When Coach Martin told me he’s the one, it was a no brainer. I just thought that I could continue to fight for these people and this community, and they got behind me and that’s why I had the opportunities I had as I moved forward.
IS: You mentioned a few moments ago, when you characterized your playing career, battling through so many injuries, how did that adversity help to shape you into the person that you are today?
KP: When I got injured, it was going into my sophomore year after my freshman year in college, I got injured, and I was able to understand injuries like this are really hard to come back from. I ruptured a tendon in my knee.
I could feel my limitations. So, I had to start thinking what was going to be next for me.
My sophomore year I sat out, but I took the role of understanding things from a coach’s perspective and kind of seeing how they move and maneuver and what goes on in the day-to-day with what the coaches do.
And I just kind of fell in love with that and the opportunities that they give to young men and the opportunities that basketball creates for them and their families. I knew I had to figure that out quickly, and I didn’t want to waste time thinking like, I’m going to be a professional basketball player knowing my body, my limitations and my immobilities at that time.
I just knew the best thing for me was to look forward for what my career was going to be, and I got right into it.
IS: Was that the first time that coaching popped up on your radar as the career path that you wanted to see for yourself or when else would it have been a potential idea for you?
KP: My sophomore year, I had a public speaking class, and I had to do a presentation. I did my presentation on college coaching, and I interviewed Cuonzo Martin and a couple of assistants, and it really gave me the opportunity to kind of really, really see what it was about.
Once I left that presentation, I felt really good about what coaches did and how they impact people, not just on the court but off the court and them serving people. I knew it was something that I would be willing to do, and I wanted to do. That was my sophomore year in college. That was when I first got that itch.
IS: Expanding on that with the way that the coaches impact the lives of their players, what are some skills or life lessons that you try to instill in your players?
KP: I think just the education part. How you do anything is how you do everything. I constantly remind our guys of that, like not slacking off in class and not showing up the professor.
I told one of our guys the other day, ‘Hey, you go in that class and you BS, that professor gets offended because the classroom is like their basketball practice, and they want to see people there present, and they want to see you involved. You’re not going to come to basketball practice and sit on your hands and not have energy and not listen to the coaches. So, you shouldn’t do those things when you get in the classroom.’
The more the more times we can get student-athletes to believe in their academics and make them understand how important it is for the rest of their lives, that’s when we’re really doing a good deed for these young men, and so I really hold that near and dear to me.
IS: That’s a great lesson to instill in them that you can take in any walk of life. I want to dive more into your career. You started at Missouri State, where you played and then jumped over to SEMO. What went into that decision to move away from your alma mater?
KP: At that time, Coach Paul Lusk got let go from Missouri State. And so, when coaching changes happen, everybody is up in the air. So, we got let go as a staff.
The opportunity presented itself with the relationship from Coach Cuonzo Martin to Rick Ray, I was presented an opportunity to go to SEMO and join Rick Ray’s staff at that time. I interviewed with him, and it went well. He felt really good about me and based on the relationships we both had with Coach Martin, it was a no brainer.
It was a chance for me to continue my career in Missouri and near Saint Louis, where I’m from. It was an hour and a half up the road.
And then I knew it was an opportunity for me to now bring some Saint Louis kids to Cape Girardeau, Mo., at Southeast Missouri State, where they did not have many players from that area on the roster. I knew that would be important to me, and I had that opportunity and went forward with it.
IS: How much pride did you take in being able to give players from your hometown that opportunity to play at the Division-I level?
KP: A tremendous amount of pride. One because SEMO’s not the sexy name, right? There’s SLU right there in Saint Louis. You got Missouri State up 44. You got all these schools in that area and obviously Mizzou. And so, SEMO is not a lot of people’s No. 1 choice. When I went through the process, it wasn’t my No. 1 choice.
We had to find a way to make SEMO cool. We had to find a way to make SEMO make sense to people. And that starts with camps and getting people down there and kind of just showing them our arena and the setup.
It’s a really good setup and an opportunity for kids to not go too far from home but be far enough away where they can grow and develop on their own, but if they need to get home for an emergency or family cooking or whatever the case may be, they still had those opportunities. So, just had to make it cool and make it relevant to the young guys during that time.
IS: Definitely a nice blend of being away from home, but not too far away from home. You went through a really great period, capped off with last year winning the first championship in 23 years for the program. What are you going to remember most about that championship run?
KP: The players and how they deserved it. We went through a lot of a lot of tough times in my time there, but we had a group that stuck together through the ups and downs, and they got the ultimate reward of leading their program to that point.
Just the people we did it with: the team, the staff. You can go back in 10, 20 years, and that banner’s still going to be hanging up and knowing that I was a part of that, and the entire program at that time, we had something to do with that banner hanging. They can’t take that away from you. So, it’ll forever be in my heart.
It gave me my first taste of the NCAA Tournament. And there’s nothing more that I wanted to do than continue to repeat that and replicate that feeling over my next couple of coaching year.
IS: What was your initial impression of the NCAA Tournament and being on that grand stage?
KP: It’s just the feeling you get. You watched the games during March Madness, and as a player, you didn’t get to get that opportunity. And then you as a coach, you go so many years without having that opportunity. And it just kind of gives you chills. Everybody’s excited.
Everybody’s watching. You step on the floor. You see the NCAA-imprinted balls, NCAA tags everywhere and the NCAA gear they give you.
It gives you chills being a part of something where 68 teams get selected out of 351. It’s just a feeling you get through your body that you can’t replicate.
And you know once you get there, you have that feeling. For anybody who gets there for the first time, they’ll understand. Next time, I get there, the chill won’t be the same, but it’ll still be an awesome feeling knowing that you’ve gone back to that unique field of 68.
IS: Without question to me, the best sporting event in the world. What’s next for you?
KP: It’s just continuing to be where I am. I’m at UTA. I’m excited to be here. I work with a great group of people. We have a great group of young men that we’re trying to help develop and grow and win as many games as we can.
But ultimately, for me, I want to be a head coach. I want to continue to grow and develop and learn as much as I can with the people I’m around so when my opportunity is presented, I’m as prepared as I can be for that moment.
IS: Coach, you’re definitely on a great path there and you gave me so much today. Anything else you could think of?
KP: I just want to publicly thank KT Turner for giving me an opportunity, giving my family an opportunity to be here in Arlington. It’s an amazing place. I knew nothing about UTA before I got here, and I’m continually learning about it. We have a great situation, great people, great support.
So, I’m just forever thankful to KT Turner and the opportunity he presented me. It’s a landscape- changing trajectory of my career. I think it’s just so important to be with good people. And I feel good about the people I’m with.
IS: I want to ask you a follow up on that. How do you feel that this move has changed the trajectory of your career, that kind of caught my attention?
KP: It just gives me the opportunity to recruit in Texas. Texas is such a big place with Dallas and Houston and having these huge cities and there’s so many really good players here. The relationships I’m developing with coaches, high school coaches, AAU program coaches and directors, those are relationships that will go with me wherever I go.
When you have those kinds of relationships, the sky is the limit in the business. When you become a head coach, just to be able to come back and see these people and know that they know you and they trust in you to coach their players and take it to the next level.
So, I think that’s been the biggest thing, just taking advantage of being in this area and being able to see so many kids on a daily [basis]. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for me.