For Richard Pitino, the pressure is on for a big turnaround season. Getting back to the postseason for the first time since his NIT title run in his first year is the goal for the fourth-year Gophers men’s basketball coach and his team.
But what are realistic expectations coming off an eight-win season? Doubling the win total? Reaching 20 victories? NIT?
Entering Friday’s opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, an NCAA tournament run seems far-fetched for a team that finished a lowly 2-16 in the Big Ten last season. But college basketball history, and even recently in the Big Ten, has proved that significant single-season turnarounds are possible with the right pieces in place.
In the past decade, Indiana (2011-12), Penn State (2010-11) and Illinois (2008-09) went from losing to winning records with at least an eight-win improvement from the previous year to reach the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers experienced the biggest jump in that span: In Tom Crean’s fourth season, he turned Indiana around from 12-20 to 27-9 and a Sweet 16 appearance.
The biggest one-year turnaround in Gophers history is 11 wins. In 2007-08, Tubby Smith inherited a then-program-worst 9-22 team and finished 20-14 in his first year. Can the program make another double-digit jump in wins this season under Pitino?
“It’s realistic because the middle of the Big Ten is wide open,” Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin said. “Obviously, if you look at the top with Wisconsin, Indiana, and Purdue, Michigan State and maybe even Maryland, those teams are probably going to sit at the top of the Big Ten throughout the season. But the middle of the pack is where it gets real interesting for particularly Minnesota and Illinois. They don’t see themselves as the same teams. That’s why year in and year out, there’s always a team that makes a huge leap. And I think that’s Illinois and Minnesota this year.”
The Gophers added five newcomers, including two new starters in freshman Amir Coffey and junior Reggie Lynch. Senior Akeem Springs and freshman Eric Curry are also expected to log major minutes. With two potential all-conference players returning in junior Nate Mason and sophomore Jordan Murphy, Minnesota is clearly a more talented group than last season’s 8-23 squad.
Pitino said it’s his best team yet. But the Gophers will play a brutal Big Ten schedule — four of their first six games are on the road — and also have their toughest nonconference slate in years, with games against experienced midmajors such as Texas-Arlington and Power 5 conference schools such as Florida State, St. John’s, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.
Said Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris: “I think if the Gophers don’t finish in that top seven or eight in the Big Ten, their RPI should be high with that nonconference schedule. And if they finish fairly reasonable in the Big Ten, then you’re looking at potentially maybe an NIT berth. Going from where they were last year with eight wins, unless things completely fall apart, they’ll be in the mix for the postseason. I think that’s probably realistic for them this year.”
The Gophers were showing improvement last season, even during a 14-game losing streak. Six of those losses in the Big Ten were by one or two possessions, including twice to conference champion Indiana. The breakthrough finally came with a victory over No. 6 Maryland. But Pitino suspended Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey after sex videos appeared on Dorsey’s social media accounts. The suspensions led to a 0-4 finish as the Gophers played with only five scholarship players.
“We looked ourselves in the mirror, I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘OK, we’ve got to get better,’ ” Pitino said. “As tough as last year was, I think I’m a better coach from it. I think our staff learned a lot, and I think it’s going to be a valuable lesson for everybody.”
Illinois coach John Groce, whose team experienced its own adversity last year with injuries during a 15-19 season, understands why top Big Ten coaches such as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Crean picked both the Gophers and the Illini to be much improved.
“When you go through health stuff and some different things our teams went through, now a lot of that anticipation from other coaches or Richard and myself is the fact that we’re older and more experienced,” Groce said. “Old can be good if you let experience be a teacher for you. It can be a very, very valuable one. Minnesota has some [younger] guys back who have been through a lot. I’m sure it has made them stronger.”
Minnesota went from eight freshmen and sophomores to six juniors and seniors combined, including potential impact transfers Lynch and Springs.
“I want to win,” said Springs, who was named a team captain Thursday with Mason and Murphy. “I went to the [NCAA] tournament once with Milwaukee. I want to get back. So that’s a big part for me.”
There isn’t an exact formula for a huge turnaround from one year to the next. It can happen because of a big-time prospect or recruiting class. The Gophers have Coffey, the highest-rated player brought in by Pitino. Indiana’s resurgence in 2011 occurred after the arrival of McDonald’s All-American Cody Zeller.
It helps to have a veteran all-conference-caliber player, like Penn State did with guard Talor Battle five years ago. The Nittany Lions went from 11-20 to 19-15 the following season after Battle carried them to their first NCAA tournament since 2001.
“[Battle] was an experienced guy who wasn’t afraid of the competition,” Crispin said. “If anything, he got up for the competition. You look at Nate Mason. He’s the kind of guy who might not go out and score 30 points, but he’s a great competitor and won’t back down from anybody. I think that sets the tone for everybody else. That’s what allows you to compete in this conference against better talent.”
But is that enough to get the Gophers to the NCAA tournament?
“I certainly think this could be a good year for them,” Crispin said. “Does it mean they’ll make the NCAA tournament? I don’t know. You have to win all of the games you’re supposed to win and three to five games you probably shouldn’t.”