MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino is still getting settled into his office on the University of Minnesota campus. The new Gophers basketball coach has plenty of items that haven’t been taken out of boxes yet, and his desk looks a bit sparse.
Who could blame the 30-year-old Pitino for not having time to fully adjust to his new surroundings? Minnesota announced April 3 that Pitino would replace Tubby Smith, and two days later he was introduced at a Williams Arena press conference.
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Later that day, Pitino flew to Atlanta to watch his dad, Rick, lead Louisville to the national championship with Saturday and Monday wins that capped a whirlwind week for the Pitino family. Rick Pitino was also named to the Basketball Hall of Fame just hours before the title game.
Because of all that’s gone on in the last two weeks, Richard Pitino — who coached one season at Florida International before taking the Minnesota job — has barely had time to meet with his new players. Since his arrival, the Gophers have held just three workouts, all of which have focused on the offensive side of the ball. So while Pitino insists it’s too early to tell what type of team he has, he’s also hoping to temper expectations about next season.
Meeting with a small group of reporters Tuesday in his campus office, Pitino clarified a comment he made to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Monday. In that interview, he was asked whether a return to the NCAA tournament should be expected for the Gophers next year, and he said that such expectations would “pretty unrealistic.”
“My point was not about the NCAA tournament,” Pitino said Tuesday. “I don’t think about that. My point is we’re losing two starters in the frontcourt, two very good players in (Trevor) Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. We don’t have the depth necessary just yet. So that’s my point. I didn’t say NCAA tournament. I don’t even think about the NCAA tournament. My point is expectations, when you’ve got two seniors who are very, very good players (who) are gone, it would probably be silly to expect that right now. We’ll see how the younger guys do and we’ll see who we bring in.”
Mbakwe and Williams were key contributors to the Gophers’ tournament bid last season. Mbakwe led the Big Ten in rebounding twice with the Gophers, and Williams possessed as much athleticism as any player in the conference.
Junior center Mo Walker, who checks in at nearly 300 pounds, and redshirt freshman forward Charles Buggs are two options for the Gophers’ frontcourt next season, but Pitino hasn’t yet had much of a chance to see of either of them. Buggs has been sick with mononucleosis and has not practiced, and Walker suffered a minor injury but has still taken part in two of three workouts.
With Mbakwe and Williams gone, Pitino knows the frontcourt may be the biggest question mark on the roster heading into next season.
“I know they’re great kids,” Pitino said. “I know they work hard. I don’t know just yet how they’re going to be in my offense, how they’re going to be in the press. It’s just too early to tell that right now. My expectations are to get these guys to buy into what we’re doing — not that the old way was wrong, but buy into my system, buy into my style, because it’s going to be totally different.”
Minnesota currently has an empty 2013 recruiting class. After Smith was fired, Alex Foster and Alvin Ellis both decommitted, leaving the Gophers with no incoming freshmen.
Pitino can’t talk specifically about recruits, including those who decommitted from the Gophers’ program, but there are several in-state products he’s no doubt courting. That list of Minnesota kids includes the talented class of 2014 point guard Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, shooting guard Rashad Vaughn of Robbinsdale Cooper and forward Reid Travis of De La Salle.
“I just value the right fit in recruiting,” Pitino said. “Certainly if we can get guys to stay home, I think it’s great for the state. You’ve got a state that loves the University of Minnesota. You’ve got the pride in this state. I’ve never seen anything like it. Certainly, if it’s the right fit and we can get some guys, if they’re the right fit recruiting-wise to stay home, that’s always important.”
By that same token, Pitino knows much is made about recruiting and many will be wondering whether he will be able to land any of the big-name Minnesota recruits. At just 30 years old, Pitino believes his age can serve as a positive when trying to connect with recruits.
“I embrace the fact that I’m young. Hopefully I can relate to them in a different way,” said Pitino, who has been an assistant under Florida’s Billy Donovan, another coach who got his start at a young age. “It doesn’t mean it’s better, but I embrace it.”
Like his roster, Pitino’s staff is still up in the air. He has hired Kimani Young, who was his assistant at FIU, to join him in the same role at Minnesota. Mike Balado was hired to be the Gophers’ director of basketball operations, but Balado is in talks with FIU to become the top assistant under new head coach Anthony Evans. Former Gopher Ben Johnson, an assistant at Nebraska last season, was added to Pitino’s staff Tuesday afternoon.
“I want great chemistry,” Pitino said. “I need to have guys who complement each other. I need to have guys that make me better. I don’t want all the same guy. I think when you’re building a staff, you need to have guys who complement each other.”
Pitino is stepping into a job in which the previous coach was fired after making the NCAA tournament and winning a game in first round. Now that fans have gotten a taste of the tournament for the first time in several years, they may be expecting to return in 2013. But Pitino is consistent in not overselling his program before he even has been fully acquainted with it.
“Certainly if everybody was back from last year’s team, that would be different,” Pitino said. “But like I said, it would be unrealistic to expect after losing (two) starters that we’re going to be the same team. Not that we can’t make the tournament, not that we can’t win games. I fully expect to compete hopefully at a very high level.”