New Minnesota coach Richard Pitino pushing players hard

MINNEAPOLIS — After an hour-long practice Tuesday that consisted of a makeshift scrimmage, members of the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team were dripping sweat. Many were short of breath.

It’s a byproduct of the up-tempo system installed by new coach Richard Pitino, who takes over for Tubby Smith this season. Under Smith, the Gophers employed a slower, half-court offense. The 30-year-old Pitino, on the other hand, likes his team to run the floor from the opening tip to the final whistle.

This new style is something that the Gophers’ holdovers from the Smith regime are still getting used to. With each practice, though, Pitino’s style is catching on.

“I know I’m going to be in the best shape of my life,” point guard Andre Hollins said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m like 194, 195 (pounds) now. Normally in the summertime, I get up to like 200 from a lot of weight lifting. But we’ve been doing a lot of running and conditioning lately, so I’m in really good shape this summer.”

Hollins isn’t the only Gopher to shed the pounds this summer. Center/forward Mo Walker has lost around 45 pounds, now weighing in at 265 pounds. Others appeared in better shape Tuesday, the first time this summer that the Gophers have had media availability.

That included senior Austin Hollins, who was also drenched with perspiration.

“I sweat a lot, so after every practice I was drenched head to toe,” Hollins said. “You’ve got to get in the gym every day. We’re lifting weights every day and coming in and getting conditioned. It’ll pay off come season time. . . . It’s a work in progress. Everyone’s starting to get the hang of it.”

Minnesota has had just a handful of practices this summer under Pitino, who took the job in April after spending one year as the head coach at Florida International. Before that, he had stints as an assistant for his father Rick’s team at Louisville as well as the University of Florida under Billy Donovan.

Pitino takes over a Gophers program that loses its top two players from last year in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, who are both trying to make NBA rosters after going undrafted. Still, the cupboard is not entirely bare at Minnesota. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins figure to be two of the team’s top contributors. Pitino has also lauded the talent of youngsters Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson, as well as newcomers Malik Smith and Joey King.

But it’s still mid-July, and Pitino isn’t entirely sure what kind of team he has on his hands just yet.

“You’ve got to be careful to really try to predict too much too soon,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little better feel, but adversity hasn’t really hit these guys yet. They’re not going to class for a full day, then coming to us, lifting. They’re not really dealing with a whole lot of adversity. Summertime’s a lot different than the regular season. They’re great kids. They’re going to get better, but it’s still really early to tell.”

The thought of transferring crossed the minds of some players when it was announced that Smith was out and Pitino was in. Guard Joe Coleman did indeed leave the program — the former Hopkins High School star will play at Saint Mary’s — but the rest have stayed put.

In doing so, they’ve had to adjust to an entirely different style of play than they were used to under Smith.

“The biggest thing for me that I’ve tried to do is this is the summer. If I come in here going nuts in July and June, they’re going to hate me come December,” Pitino said. “So I’ve tried to take it somewhat easy on them but also kind of instill the culture just because we’re allowed two hours, and when the season starts we practice much, much more than that. For me, I’m just trying not to make them feel like it’s the season.”

One big question keeps coming up regarding Pitino’s quick-paced system: Will it work in the Big Ten, a conference known more for its plodding brand of basketball?

Time will tell, but Pitino’s new players certainly think it will.

“I think we can tire teams down, but I know they’re going to try to slow it up,” Andre Hollins said. “It’s exciting. I’m ready to see.”

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