At his introductory news conference on April 5, Gophers coach Richard Pitino barely let 30 seconds slip by before bringing up his style.
He spoke of a fun-to-watch, fast-paced system, waving off preconceptions that it’s tough to play up-and-down in the grinding Big Ten.
Perhaps now he’s getting a glimpse of just how hard it is.
One year after running his Florida International squad into one of the faster-playing teams in the nation, Pitino has struggled to find that same pace with his new team. The Gophers rank 223rd in nationwide pace of play heading into Saturday’s game against Northwestern, the slowest team in the league, according to the website of college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.
In Big Ten play, the Gophers land at eighth in a conference that — with the exceptions of Iowa, Indiana and Purdue — isn’t very fast at all. The conference ranks 23rd out of 32 Division I conferences in average pace.
“This is more of a slow-it-down league than the Sun Belt Conference,” said senior Malik Smith, who also played for Pitino at Florida International, which ranked 48th in D-I at 68.9 possessions per game last season. “A lot of teams like to run in that conference, and teams are just slowing us down this season, and we just have to impose our will more than we’ve been doing.”
The Gophers have failed to eclipse 65 points three times in the Big Ten schedule — and even when they manage to score a lot of points, it’s mostly because they make the most of their possessions. Against Wisconsin, the Gophers scored 81 points on only 58 possessions, their slowest-paced game of the year.
Though the Gophers’ pace is a far cry from what Pitino sold as the team’s identity at the outset, the lack of speed can hardly be considered a weakness.
“I want to play fast, but I don’t want to be dumb,” Pitino said. “I certainly want to be intelligent about the way that we play. And I want to execute. If we have an opportunity to get out on a break, I want to do it. But if we don’t, I’m not just going to play fast so that I can brag about our tempo numbers. I think we’ve shown the ability this year to really execute.”
Indeed, the Gophers rank 16th in the nation and fourth in the conference in offensive efficiency. Pitino emphasizes a lot of offensive autonomy with his players, and his pick-and-roll style seems to benefit his roster’s natural advantages. He has pointed out that players have exceeded his expectations in terms of how quickly and smoothly they have transitioned to the new style.
In early December, Pitino said he thought the team was better at playing slow than fast, and perhaps that observation still holds. The Gophers’ big conference victories came over Wisconsin and Ohio State, two games in which the Gophers had 63 possessions or fewer. But they struggled against the likes of Iowa and Nebraska, two games in which they reached at least 70 possessions.
Pitino believes his teams will get faster as he has the opportunity to recruit more of his “type” of players and his bench becomes deeper. But for now, he has made it clear that speeding up and down the court is no longer a priority.
“Offensively, we’re not going to push the pace just to push the pace,” Pitino said. “As long as we win, I don’t care what the score is, really. You take what the opponent gives you.”
The mark of a truly sound offense, after all, is being able to execute regardless of the matchup up and how much the opponent wants to push the tempo, or slow it down. The Gophers think they are getting better at that.
“I think we’re really capable of adjusting to other teams while still playing our game,” forward Joey King said. “We want to do what we want to do. But at the same time, there are times where we’re going to have to adjust just so we can be successful against some of these other teams that play different styles.”