After tough losses like the Gophers had against Michigan on Thursday night, Richard Pitino stops himself from checking his Twitter account.
In his sixth season as Minnesota’s basketball coach, Pitino has seen his share of praise and criticism. More so the latter when his team struggles. He agrees that fans have a reason to be a bit frustrated right now with five losses in the last six games after falling 69-60 to No. 7 Michigan.
The Gophers (17-10, 7-9) are still very much alive for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, though, heading into back-to-back road games Sunday at Rutgers and next Thursday at Northwestern. In a Q&A with the Star Tribune, Pitino gave an assessment so far of this season, how the offense can improve, talks with athletics director Mark Coyle about his program’s future and more.
Q: How would you describe the season so far for your team?
A: It’s been weird, because we’ve obviously had injuries with Eric [Curry]. We’ve obviously had the tragedy with Dupree (McBrayer’s) mom. That was really, really hard. We’re sitting at 17-10, right there for an NCAA tournament berth. We have not shot that ball well at all. Obviously, our three-point percentages are abysmal. And somehow still, we’re in the fight. So I’ve got to get our guys to be excited about that. We lost four in a row at a tough point in our schedule. We ran into Michigan [Thursday] night who is a terrific team who played great. They shot the ball great and we did not.
Q: A few years ago, there was speculation about your job status before the Gophers turned things around to make the NCAA tournament. Do you handle criticism the same way now?
A: When you’re a coach at this level, what you do is pour your heart and soul into your team, your players, your staff, your recruits and most importantly your family. That’s what you do. You don’t get too high and low. You don’t worry what people say about you because they’re going to say it about everybody. So you don’t take offense to it. You just get better. I’m going to coach my team to the best of my ability every single day. And I’m going to be who I am as a person. With an understanding that this is a results driven profession. But I’m going to every day put my heart and soul into it. That’s how you put your head on the pillow every night. I’ll continue to do that and be myself.
Q: Coyle didn’t hire you, but he has supported you since he arrived three years ago. What’s your communication like with Coyle this season?
A: Mark and I have a great relationship. I feel great about the program to be quite honest with you. We’re going to continue to fight and see if we can get into the tournament. We’re excited about recruiting with Tre’ Williams in the fold. He’s a guy who has shot up in every ranking as a four-star player and a top-100 kid. We’ve got two guys in (transfers) Payton Willis and Marcus Carr who are really, really going to help. I think Eric Curry with a good offseason will be back even healthier. I feel really good about it. [He and Coyle] talk about life, family, how the day is going. We’ve got a great relationship and friendship. He asks me how I’m doing. I ask him how he’s doing. That’s about it.
Q: How much have you considered changing offensive schemes after struggling to execute so often?
A: That’s never good. The really good coaches stay true to what they’re doing. You can’t scrap what you’re working on. We had 84 points against Indiana, against a great defense. Michigan has got a terrific defense. It’s just do what we do, but do it a little bit better and evaluate from there. It’s definitely not the scheme. It’s what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. I think it’s all about taking great shots. Dupree and Amir [Coffey] have the ability to make shots. It’s just evaluating what shots they’re taking. Are they good shots? Are they bad shots? Being confident with it. Moving the ball and moving the defense. Getting more assisted jump shots. When we do that we can shoot the ball.
Q: How have you tried to get the potential out of Amir Coffey, who is one of the most talented players in the Big Ten?
A: He’s been a really good player. Top-to-bottom, he’s competed. He fell into the trap [against Michigan] of trying to get fouled, instead of trying to score. He was attacking. Getting a little bit closer to the basket will help. He was trying to take contact. Maybe there was one or two he thought shouldn’t have been a foul. Michigan did a good job of walling him up. I think with Amir, he’s going to continue to compete. He’s a tough kid.
Q: Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer have just one home game left. What should we remember most about their careers so far with the Gophers?
A: The season isn’t over yet. We’ve got big games. We need them to still go see what they can do. The time to talk about remembering those guys is a couple weeks from now. I want them to help us go beat Rutgers on the road and rebound from the Michigan loss. I just want them to go have fun with this and see if we can go get some road wins.
Q: Senior transfers Matz Stockman and Brock Stull haven’t played much in the Big Ten, so how can they help you during this last stretch?
A: It’s important to get bench production. Brock can provide us with some shooting that we need and he passes the ball well. Matz obviously with Eric back and Daniel (Oturu) playing well is playing less. But all these guys can help us. That’s what being part of a team is all about.
Q: Isaiah Washington returned from missing a game with a tailbone injury. Was he bothered by it against Michigan, and that limited his playing time?
A: No. Not really. It’s hard. You can’t play everybody. You have to put the guys on the court who you think can help you win.
Q: What do you need to do to beat a very big and physical Rutgers team?
A: They’re really physical. They just bang it in there down low. They put their rebounders in position to when the shot goes up, they’re near the basket. Obviously, (leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi) being back helps their team. He had missed some time. He showed great fight to come back. Geo Baker is a good player, so they’re playing with some great toughness. They’re big and they’re strong. It’s going to be a football game, so our guys got to be ready.
Q: You’ve talked about the NET rankings and your team’s resume before. What do you think the team has to do to make the NCAA tournament?
A: We’re not really thinking like that. We’ve got some terrific opportunities in front of us. We’ve just got to rebound from losing at home to a really good Michigan team. When you don’t shoot the ball well, you got to get your confidence back. The focus is just on Rutgers and you move on to Northwestern.