Pitino’s first season with Gophers a success

Richard Pitino, 31, led Minnesota to the NIT title in his first season as Gophers head coach.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

As Richard Pitino coached his Minnesota Golden Gophers to an NIT championship on Thursday, the TV cameras seemed to find his famous father, Rick, just as often as they focused on the son. When the younger Pitino left Florida International to take the Gophers coaching job last April, his well-known surname was the only thing many Minnesotans knew about him.

Yet now that Richard Pitino has one season in the books after taking over at Minnesota, he’s proven that he can in fact coach. With an NIT title to his name in just one year with the Gophers, Pitino’s first season at Minnesota has to be considered a success.

Before the 2013-14 season began, reaching the NCAA tournament seemed like a lofty goal for a Minnesota team that just lost two vital seniors in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Pitino even tried to temper expectations when he took over, admitting that he had some work to do after inheriting what former coach Tubby Smith left behind. Amid all of that, though, the Gophers just missed out on the NCAA tournament as a bubble team and instead accepted an invitation to the NIT.

Including Thursday’s 65-63 win over Southern Methodist and 73-year-old Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, the Gophers closed out their season with a 25-13 record — the most wins in a season in school history, not counting the vacated 31-win 1996-97 season. Minnesota went 8-10 in Big Ten play this year and hung tough with the likes of Big Ten powers Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. A few of their close losses against conference foes, however, prevented the Gophers from being on the other side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

Gophers 65, SMU 63

While most teams might check out mentally after missing out on the big dance and settling for a spot in the NIT, Pitino made sure Minnesota did the opposite. These Gophers played like a team that wanted to be there — and one that didn’t want their first season under Pitino to end.

It was the same way Minnesota played all year. They rarely, if ever, seemed disinterested during a game. The Gophers struggled at times, sure, but there never appeared to be a lack of effort. Ask anyone in the locker room, and they’ll tell you that’s a credit to the 31-year-old Pitino.

"He’s very energetic," said junior guard Andre Hollins. "We don’t take plays off. That’s what he’s all about, play every possession. We’re going to compete. It’s about competing."

When Pitino took over, he had to fill an empty recruiting class after Smith’s recruits left for other schools. So Pitino brought senior guard Malik Smith with him from Florida International, convinced freshman Daquein McNeil to follow him to Minnesota, and plucked point guard DeAndre Mathieu from the junior college ranks. He also landed Eagan, Minn., native Joey King, who transferred from Drake to his hometown school for family reasons and was granted eligibility for the 2013-14 season.

The cast of recruits that Pitino threw together at the last minute proved to be key for the Gophers this year. Mathieu was arguably Minnesota’s most exciting player to watch — and one of its most valuable.

At just 5-foot-9, many wondered if Mathieu could cut it in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The Knoxville native had only a few scholarship offers — including one from Pitino, who never doubted him. Their bond paid huge dividends as Mathieu led the team in assists and was the second-leading scorer.

"He might be one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for, strategy-wise and motivational-wise," Mathieu said of Pitino. "He keeps you going, even when you’re having a bad game or something. Even though he screams and hollers, he really gets a good message across."

While Smith went through a deep slump late in the year, he was one of Minnesota’s sharpshooters through the first half of the season. And King provided the grit and toughness that the Gophers needed, willing to do the little things like draw a charge or dive for a loose ball — the plays that don’t show up on the box score but are still important in building a winning program.

One of Pitino’s greatest coaching achievements this year was turning center Mo Walker into a serviceable big man. Prior to Pitino’s arrival, Walker was overweight (he tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds) and was essentially a nonfactor for Minnesota on both sides of the ball. Pitino gave Walker an ultimatum of sorts before the season began: lose weight, or you won’t be able to play in the new uptempo system.

To Walker’s credit, he shed 60 pounds and was one of the biggest surprises for the Gophers this year. He became Minnesota’s fourth-leading scorer (7.8 ppg) and was third on the team in rebounds (4.5). His previous career highs in both categories were 3.7 and 2.8, respectively.

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Walker credits Pitino for his transformation, while Pitino acknowledges the hard work Walker put in to get his body in shape. Now Minnesota knows what it can get from Walker as a senior next year.

"He’s brought a lot to the team," Walker said of his coach. "Just that work ethic and trying to bring it every day, whether it’s practice, individuals or a game. We come out here hard, ready to play."

Pitino may look like a younger version of his dad, and if you close your eyes you may think it’s the Hall of Fame coach talking and not his son. But Richard Pitino made clear early on that he is not his dad and wanted to do things his own way in the early stages of his coaching career.

"This is year one for me. I’m putting in a whole new stamp and a whole new culture, and it’s just different. It doesn’t mean the old way was bad or my way is right," Pitino said. "We’re trying to build something."

A school-record 25 wins later, Pitino has left a strong first impression in Minnesota and is indeed building something in Dinkytown. There may be plenty of work left to do, but the foundation is now there.

"It’s tough for a new coach to come in and take over a team and do what he did with this team," said senior Austin Hollins. "I think next year, he’s got a lot of young recruits coming in. He’s got four of five starters coming back. They work extremely hard. They’re very encouraging and motivating. This team is going to be really good."

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