MINNEAPOLIS — Andre Hollins used the word “weird” to describe the last two weeks. The Gophers guard and the rest of his teammates saw their coach fired last Monday, one day after losing to Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Ten days later, Minnesota hired 30-year-old Richard Pitino to replace Smith.
“I was telling people it was kind of like being at home and then having your parents leave and having a new set of parents come in,” Hollins said Friday after Pitino was introduced at a press conference. “I mean, that’s kind of what it was like, just waiting and sitting at home, being like by ourselves. It was weird. It’s exciting now.”
Excitement seemed to be the general vibe from current Gophers players, who were all on hand Friday at Williams Arena to welcome their new coach. While they were admittedly surprised to see Smith let go after six seasons, they were optimistic about the future with Pitino at the helm.
“It’s never easy losing a coach that you’ve been with for three years. I think everyone’s going to miss Coach Smith,” said junior Austin Hollins. “But at the same time, he laid a foundation down. I think Coach Pitino’s going to come in here, he’s got the right vision, he’s got the right goals in mind. I think he’ll be ready to work and get us ready for next season.”
Pitino inherits a Gophers team that was once ranked No. 8 in the country this season but eventually fell out of the Top 25 rankings. Minnesota was one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament as a No. 9 seed and drew an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After beating UCLA in the first round, Smith’s Gophers were blown out by Florida two days later.
That wound up being Smith’s last game at Minnesota, as he was fired the following day. The 61-year-old Smith was hired as the new Texas Tech coach before the Gophers filled his void. During that time, his former players were left waiting and wondering.
“It was definitely weird. I was shocked when I woke up in the morning,” Andre Hollins said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was just one of those speechless moments.”
In his introductory press conference Friday, Pitino said his team will play an up-tempo style of offense and will use the press frequently on defense. The Gophers seemed to be at their best when they played that type of up-and-down style this season, but Minnesota’s half-court offense proved ineffective at times as things would get bogged down.
Andre Hollins, who scored 28 points in the win against UCLA and led the Gophers in scoring with 13.9 points per game, is eager at the opportunity to lead that up-tempo offense.
“It’s definitely exciting, getting up and down. That’s when I think I play my best basketball, when I get up and down, pressuring people, just being aggressive,” Hollins said. “He said we’re going to do individual workouts before practice. He’s going to get with every player, and he’s going to run them, and he’s going to make sure that you’re working on your weaknesses. So I really like that.”
Hollins likely didn’t know much about Richard Pitino’s background, but he knew what Pitino’s father did at Louisville. So Hollins, a Memphis native, reached out to a few players with ties to the younger Pitino for some insight. He contacted Florida’s Casey Prather, a junior from Jackson, Tenn., and Memphis’ Chris Jones, a junior college transfer who will play at Louisville next season.
“They said he’s really cool, real laid back, down to earth,” Hollins said. “He gets the job done. He knows what he’s doing.”
As for playing for a 30-year-old coach? The Gophers know that will be an adjustment after playing for the 61-year-old Smith, but they’re excited at the young perspective that Pitino will bring to the bench next season.
Minnesota’s players joked that if sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe would have stuck around for another year, the 24-year-old forward would have been nearly the same age as his coach.
“It’s going to be exciting. I’ve always played with coaches quite a bit older than I am,” Hollins said. “I think he’s going to be able to relate to us a little bit more. He’s just 10 years older than me, so it’s going to be cool.”