After orchestrating the biggest one-year turnaround of any Division I men’s basketball program this year, the Gophers’ Richard Pitino was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by both the media and coaches.
Pitino, 34, is the youngest to win conference Coach of the Year honors since the award’s inaugural season in 1974.
“I always did feel like we would turn the corner,” Pitino said on Big Ten Network, where the awards were announced Monday. “For me to get this award is humbling, and I’m very appreciative of it. My staff and my team, they all have been really easy to coach and to be around. They made me a better coach.”
Helping Pitino go from 8-23 last year to 23-8 this season and likely his first NCAA tournament were several Gophers earning individual honors Monday, headed by juniors Nate Mason and Reggie Lynch.
Mason, the 6-2 guard who averaged a team-best 15.5 points, is the program’s first All-Big Ten first team selection since Vincent Grier in 2005. Lynch, the 6-10 center who led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game, earned the first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honor since Travarus Bennett shared the award with Indiana’s Dane Fife in 2002.
Northwestern’s Chris Collins was recently named a semifinalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year award. Pitino was snubbed from a list that included Louisville coach Rick Pitino, his father.
But Richard Pitino coached the Gophers to a school-record 15-win improvement from last season, which included going from a 2-16 to 11-7 conference record. Collins’ team improved by only one victory, going from 20-12 last season to 21-10 this year. But the Wildcats are the biggest story going into the NCAA tournament, as they are expected to make their first trip to the Big Dance ever.
“But from where we came from last year to where we are now, it’s a complete turnaround,” Mason said Sunday. “[Pitino] molded us, not only on the court, but off the court into men.”
Jim Dutcher and Clem Haskins were the only Big Ten Coach of the Year award winners in team history, leading their teams to conference titles in 1982 and ’97. But the 1996-97 season was vacated because of an academic scandal, as was Haskins’ award.
The Gophers had their longest Big Ten winning streak since that 1996-97 season end at eight Sunday with a 66-49 loss at Wisconsin. But they still earned a No. 4 seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., meaning they don’t play again until Friday.
Pitino received a bonus of $25,000 for winning Big Ten Coach of the Year in addition to the $50,000 bonus he received for a winning Big Ten record. A Gophers NCAA tournament bid will make him another $50,000.
Monday’s individual awards showed Pitino has a team talented enough to make a conference tournament run.
Mason, a 6-2 guard, averaged 17.2 points in the Big Ten. It was the program’s highest scoring average in league play since Grier’s 18.0 points in 2004-05. Lynch, the 6-10 center from Edina, broke program legend Randy Breuer’s single-season blocks record set in 1982-83. His 11-block performance vs. Penn State tied the second most in a game in Big Ten history, and his 106 blocks are the most in the conference since 2000-01.
Former Hopkins standout Amir Coffey was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team after ranking second on the Gophers in scoring (12.0) and tying for the Big Ten lead in minutes played (35.6) in league play. Sophomore forward Jordan Murphy, who ranked second in Big Ten play with 9.4 rebounds per game, was named to the All-Big Ten third team by both the media and coaches.
“There was never any talk about individuals all year,” Pitino said. “Our biggest strength was no ego. We had the most selflessness of any team I’ve ever been around. Guys truly all they cared about was winning, improving the image of this basketball program, gaining the respect back, not only locally but nationally.”
The media and coaches selected identical first teams, along with the same Big Ten Player of the Year, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. The 6-9 sophomore forward averaged 18.7 points and a league-best 12.6 rebounds per game. Besides Swanigan and Mason, the other first-team selections were Iowa’s Peter Jok, Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.