Pitino, Gophers want to leave New York with a trophy

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was an assistant on Louisville teams that won the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in both 2009 and 2012.

Jay LaPrete/Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino is no stranger to New York City — or to the mecca of basketball.

Though Pitino is a Massachusetts native, he spent plenty of his childhood following around his father, Rick, during the elder Pitino’s time as both an assistant coach and head coach of the New York Knicks. Though Richard Pitino was just five years old when Rick took over as the head coach in New York, he still has fond memories of the time he spent at the legendary Madison Square Garden.

He later made return trips to basketball’s most famous arena when his father was the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Richard Pitino was a bit older then and could appreciate what it meant to spend time at the Garden, where so many NBA and NCAA greats had played over the years.

"I had a lot of bad moments when he was the head coach of the Celtics," Richard Pitino said of the Boston teams that struggled under his father’s tutelage. "But I had a lot of great moments as an assistant coach."

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Pitino was an assistant coach under his father at Louisville for two different stints, from 2007-09 and again for the 2011-12 season. The Cardinals won the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in both 2009 and 2012 with the younger Pitino on the bench.

Now Pitino hopes to win another title in that same arena: an NIT championship. The Gophers face off against Florida State in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday in New York. Though Pitino has repeatedly said that Minnesota fell short of its goal of making the NCAA tournament, that doesn’t mean they aren’t embracing the opportunity to play in New York in pursuit of a championship.

"I think more than anything, I think the NIT has really, really improved as a tournament. Our goal is not to make the NIT, but it’s to consistently win at a high level," Pitino said after the Gophers beat Southern Miss to advance to the semifinals. "We’re trying to build something."

The Gophers saw the benefit that a deep run in the NIT can have, and they only have to look back two years to see a prime example. Minnesota advanced to the NIT championship in 2012 before losing to Stanford. That helped catapult the Gophers to an NCAA tournament bid and a first-round victory the following year.

With that said, Minnesota’s 75-51 loss to Stanford in the NIT title game two years ago still doesn’t sit well with the Gophers who played in that game. They don’t want to leave New York empty-handed once again.

"We use that as motivation for the players that have been here and lost in that championship game," said junior Andre Hollins, who scored just four points against the Cardinal in that loss. "Not only (that) we lost, we got beat pretty bad."

It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Pitino, whose brother lives in New York City, as do aunts and uncles. He’s tasted success at Madison Square Garden in the past. Now as a 31-year-old head coach in his first season in the Big Ten, Pitino knows how important an NIT title could be for the future of Minnesota basketball.

"As you continue to build in Year One to get to 23 wins and to have an opportunity to play in the Garden, to continue to try to hopefully win a championship with a lot of guys back next year is huge for the development of our program," he said.

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Gophers senior Austin Hollins is a big reason why Minnesota will be playing in New York on Tuesday against a Florida State squad the Gophers beat earlier this year. Hollins capped his final game at Williams Arena with a career-high 32 points as Minnesota topped the Golden Eagles, 81-73.

Hollins scored 10 points the last time he took the court at Madison Square Garden. Now Minnesota’s senior captain wants to erase the memory of the 2012 NIT loss and finish his Gophers career with a win.

"It sits in our mind, definitely, since we’re back in the NIT. We think about that," Hollins said of the Gophers’ last trip to New York. "We went that far and lost in the championship game. That’s something we don’t want to do this year. We want to learn from that. We’ve got a new team, new coach. We expect to go in there and win this whole thing."

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