In his first year as head coach at Minnesota, 31-year-old Richard Pitino led the Gophers to a school-record 25 wins and an NIT championship, after which he was all smiles.
Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — There may come a time in the next few months when Richard Pitino isn’t sure what to do with himself.
The Minnesota men’s basketball coach has spent the past three summers packing up belongings, shaking hands and familiarizing himself with athletes he didn’t recruit. It’s a consequence of transcending the coaching ladder in such a rapid manner.
"I’ve moved the last three offseasons," said Pitino, hired away from Florida International a year ago. "As a head coach, this is two first years in a row. That’s really difficult."
But now, after what he deems a successful inaugural campaign, Pitino has the spring semester, summer and early fall to use as he pleases. It’s a benefit he’s not used to, having transitioned from an assistantship at Florida to his father’s staff at Louisville three years ago, then taking the FIU job in the spring of 2012.
It’s also something the 31-year-old hasn’t been through before. Not while in charge of an entire program, at least.
And after his team’s run to the NIT championship, that presents both a luxury and a challenge.
"It’s not gonna maybe be as easy, and the expectations will be higher," Pitino said during a press conference Tuesday at Williams Arena. "We’re gonna be a little more of the hunted a little bit, and we’ve got to understand that."
Indeed, coming off a school-record 25-win season — excluding a vacated 31-win, 1996-97 campaign — a seventh-place finish in a wide-open Big Ten and a pair of gutsy performances at Madison Square Garden on national television, the Gophers can no longer avoid the limelight. Neither can Pitino, who took a few paces away from the shadow of his father Rick Pitino in Richard’s second year as a head coach.
Sustainability now must replace surprise.
That’s especially true for guard DeAndre Mathieu, who emerged from college hoops obscurity to take command of Pitino’s offense and provided a necessary scoring presence behind Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. A junior-college transfer who began his career as a backup at Morehead State , the 5-foot-9, 165-pounder won’t be as difficult for defenses to identify as he was this season.
He was especially hard to miss in New York last week, scoring 17 points in a semifinal win against Florida State then notching 13 and dishing out 17 assists in the Gophers’ 65-63 title clincher over Southern Methodist.
"I thought physically over the last two weeks, he didn’t play like a kid that was small and undersized," Pitino said of Mathieu, whom he hailed as the team’s most consistent player. "I think that’s what he needs to do."
But Mathieu’s backcourt mate Andre Hollins knows full well the perils of becoming the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report, as Mathieu can surely expect moving forward. Hollins’ production, field-goal percentage and assists all dropped this season following a breakout sophomore campaign.
A left ankle injury didn’t help the team’s leading scorer any.
"Andre, in his mind, probably didn’t have a great year," Pitino said. "Well, a lot of that had to do with everybody game-planning for him. And then he had the injury and it made it even more difficult for him. Deandre understands that."
The program’s task also includes replacing seniors Maverick Ahanmisi, Austin Hollins and Malik Smith — all of whom Pitino believes could earn an overseas contract somewhere. He’s asked center Maurice Walker to add some strength to his slimmed-down frame. The same goes for Charles Buggs, who Pitino would like to see gain between 15 and 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. Guard Daquein McNeil, who averaged 9.8 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 30 appearances this season as a true freshman, is expected to make significant strides.
Junior-college transfer Carlos Morris — affectionately referred to as "Squirrel" by Pitino — is on the way in, hoping to replicate Mathieu’s immediate contributions. Pitino has three other scholarships available with which to restock the cupboard, too, though he said he may stash one away if the high-school class of 2014 doesn’t produce enough worthy prospects.
High school seniors that didn’t ink a letter of intent during the early signing period in November have between April 16 and May 21 to officially choose a college.
"We’re not going to use it just to use it, certainly," said Pitino, who had one open scholarship position this season. "But we’re actively trying to find guys that can benefit our program. And if we don’t find them, we’re just not going to give (the scholarships) away."
And Pitino himself has to adjust, too — advance schemes, handle a full recruiting cycle, get ready for a decreasingly forgiving Big Ten schedule and expectations of making the leap from consolation champion to real-deal Big Dancer.
The Gophers have the next week off before the returners begin individual instruction and Minnesota’s senior trio starts its professional preparation. Minnesota wraps up classes May 16 before the Gophers go their separate ways for the summer.
Then comes the start of the fall semester, preseason workouts and a dramatic build-up to a Nov. 14 Minnesota-Louisville matchup featuring Pitino vs. Pitino at an Air Force base in Puerto Rico. The younger, less-acclaimed head coach hasn’t thought that far ahead yet, he said.
At the moment, he’s relishing the past year of his life. Richard Pitino’s second child is expected in the next couple weeks, and a school record for wins and a championship in one’s first season on the job isn’t much to scoff at.
Truth be told, Pitino’s enjoyed the heck out of it. Further gains, though, may not come with such everyday pleasure.
Getting halfway to his father’s level, for example, requires as much sacrifice and sweat as it does enthusiasm.
"I’m obviously young," Pitino said, "but this was as fun of a year as it’s going to be.
"It’s going to be more difficult (now). But we’re excited for that challenge."