Mason: Pitino doing things his way in Minnesota

New Minnesota men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino already has made an impression on campus before coaching a single game at Williams Arena.


The 30-year-old son of Rick Pitino took over after Tubby Smith was ousted following a six-year tenure with the Gophers. In stepped Pitino after just one year of head coaching experience at the helm at Florida International. He now takes over a program that reached the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

It’s been nearly two months since Pitino’s hiring and the Gophers’ roster already has undergone quite the overhaul. Guard Joe Coleman has left the program, as did Minnesota’s two original incoming recruits, Alex Foster and Alvin Ellis. Foster wound up following Smith to Texas Tech just last week, while Ellis signed with Michigan State. After those two de-committed, Pitino was left with zero incoming recruits.

To fill the void of the empty freshman class, Pitino inked three guards who all will be eligible for the 2013-14 season. Daquan McNeil (a former FIU recruit) was the first, followed by junior college transfer Dre Mathieu earlier this month and Malik Smith (who played for Pitino at FIU) on Monday. That means Minnesota’s roster for the 2013-14 season will have eight guards, three forwards and one center.

Having a plethora of guards may seem odd, but it fits Pitino’s style. He often plays three guards at a time and runs an up-tempo offense. Because of that fast-paced style, Pitino already is trying to get the players he inherited in shape for the upcoming season. Last week while on a caravan throughout the state, Pitino reportedly said that he wants forward/center Mo Walker to lose weight. Walker weighed around 300 pounds last season and was relatively ineffective. Pitino, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wants to see Walker closer to 250 pounds. Walker already has lost 20 pounds but still has work to do.

On the flip side, Pitino noted that redshirt freshman Charles Buggs needs to add weight. He’s currently listed at 198 pounds — skinny for a 6-foot-8 forward. To play in the rough and tumble Big Ten, adding bulk will be key for Buggs, and Pitino has emphasized that during his first two months on the job.

Coleman leaves the program despite playing in all 34 games as a sophomore last year, averaging 8.7 points and 3.6 rebounds. In some ways, though, Coleman may not have fit Pitino’s style of play. Pitino looks for guards who can shoot the ball, which never has been Coleman’s strength — he shot 48.4 percent from the floor but most of his points came around the rim, and he shot just 29.6 percent from 3-point range.

With the loss of Coleman, the Gophers now have zero Minnesotans on their roster. Fans may have mixed feelings about the significance of that; some believe that it doesn’t matter as long as the team wins. But with perhaps the best recruiting class in the state’s history set to graduate high school next year, Gophers fans likely would be upset if Pitino didn’t land at least one of the “Big Three” of Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis.

The upcoming season certainly should play into whether or not Pitino can convince any of the three Minnesotans to stay home and play for the Gophers. On the previously mentioned caravan stop, Pitino emphasized his desire to keep those players in the state.

“It’s extremely important that we add Minnesota kids to this roster,” Pitino said, according to the Pioneer Press. “We’re going to try very hard to do that because certainly there’s very good players in our area. There’s no excuse to let them out of this state.”

From the get-go, Pitino has tempered expectations for the upcoming season — and probably for good reason. With the loss of senior forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, the Gophers may well finish near the bottom of the Big Ten next season. Still, Pitino is doing everything he can to leave his fingerprints on this program to set himself up for success in the future.

Minnesotans may have to be patient with Pitino through this transition period. He has shown his ambition to do things his way. Time will tell if that’s the right way.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.