After losing five consecutive games to start Big Ten Conference play, Richard Pitino and his Gophers men’s basketball team have won two out of three, and there’s no question the second-year coach believes he can win here.

“Absolutely, I think more than anything when you take over a situation like we took over, it takes time,” Pitino said Sunday. “Every year you have to continue to strengthen your program for recruiting and get these guys better. But like anything else, it just takes time. We love our fan base, we have a great fan base, a lot of things to sell. We just have to keep building.”

One of the big reasons for the Gophers’ recent improvement is the rejuvenated play of senior guard Andre Hollins, who has averaged 26.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.0 steal over the past three games while shooting 55.1 percent (27-for-49) from the floor. He also had two blocks in Saturday’s 68-60 victory over Illinois.

Hollins’ run came after a time when he failed to score at least 10 points in five out of seven games.

Pitino said Hollins has always been a leader for the Gophers, but his hot shooting has been a difference-maker.

“He has always given us a lot, besides shooting, but when he shoots the ball like that he’s a very, very good player,” Pitino said. “He’s a jump-shooting guard, so you’re going to go through that at times. But what I have liked more than anything is that his leadership, his intangibles, have always been there. That reliability factor is huge. We had that with Austin [Hollins] last year, and Andre has certainly given us that, as well.”

Pitino said he has been pleased with the performance of this year’s freshmen, his first recruiting class for the Gophers.

“I think the young guys we brought in, Bakary Konate, I really like his potential a lot, you saw some of the rebounds he had, the pick-and-pop, has a nice midrange shot, but he is still raw, so you have to give him those minutes on the court,” he said. “Gaston Diedhiou was put in a tough spot by not being able to play the first semester. This year, if we can find a little time for him, we’re going to give it to him, but we know he’s not going to be ready to contribute just yet. But he has the size, the body, we have to get bigger more than anything.

Nate Mason has the ability, in my opinion, when it’s all said and done, to be an all-conference guard. In recruiting you have to blend guys together, but you have to go get a great one, you have to get guys who are elite, elite players, and we’re working towards that.”

Pitino said that while the start of conference play was difficult for everyone, he believes this team still has potential to compete in every game the rest of the season.

“One thing we are definitely doing is competing,” he said. “I know as tough as it has been losing all these close games, you’re looking at all kinds of silver linings, we have been in every single game, and we’ve had opportunities to win. At the end of the day, that’s really what you want, to put yourself in position to win the game. Free-throw shooting has hurt us, we know that, but we were better last night. Guys have been positive, grown closer because of it.”

Recruiting still key

Pitino has four players already signed for next season and still has two, or possibly three, scholarships remaining. He broke down what those four signees can bring to the program, and how important this class is for his coaching staff.

“We got Kevin Dorsey [of Clinton Christian High School in Upper Marlboro, Md.] and he is probably one of the highest-rated point guards, I would assume, that Minnesota has ever got,” Pitino said. “He’s probably a top-10 point guard in the country, and we beat out some very good programs to get him. We have some nice pieces around him.

Jarvis Johnson [the DeLaSalle guard] is going to be a very good player. Dupree McBrayer [a 6-4 small forward out of Sunrise Christian Academy] in New York has a very good skill set. Then we have a kid, Jonathan Nwankwo [of Victory Rock Prep in Bradenton, Fla.], a big kid who is going to be a project.

“Our goal coming in when we got here was this class coming in. This was the first true class where we had some time to recruit to it. When we got here, people have to realize we really, really were going to struggle if we didn’t bring in a DeAndre Mathieu, a Joey King, even a Malik Smith for that regard, I’m not sure how good we would have been last year. Those guys really helped us bridge the gap. Now it’s all about recruiting, certainly.”

Jottings

• Famous football recruiting expert Tom Lemming sat down for an interview with Gophers coach Jerry Kill, and as a result he was named Lemming’s Coach of the Year for the nation, over Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Florida’s Jimbo Fisher. Lemming said Kill and his staff look for recruits with length and speed, and if they can find them they have the confidence in their weight program to make them good players.

• Give former Gophers men’s basketball coach Jim Dutcher credit for suggesting that the No. 45 jersey of Randy Breuer be retired, as it was Saturday. Breuer was an outstanding center on the Gophers’ 1982 Big Ten title team. The university should honor Dutcher someday for bringing the most competitive basketball to the Gophers from 1975 to ’86. Dutcher should have never resigned because of conduct of players who were never found guilty of any wrongdoing. Dutcher was 190-113 overall at the U and 98-89 in Big Ten play.

• Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski talked to Fox Sports on Sunday after becoming the first Division I men’s basketball coach to reach 1,000 victories, about the influence of his mentor, Bobby Knight. “I have thoughts of Coach Knight all the time, because no one had more of an influence on me and my career,” Krzyzewski said, adding later, “I hope Coach, if he’s watching, would share in this, because heck, he’s still the best ever and I’ve just happened to coach a little longer.” Coach K posted a record of 13-29 in the ACC and 38-47 his first three years, and Knight played a part in convincing then-Duke athletic director Tom Butters to be patient.

• The Wolves lost at Atlanta 112-100 on Sunday, putting the Hawks’ Eastern Conference-best record at 37-8. On the Hawks roster is former Roseville standout Mike Muscala, although the 6-11 second-year player has played sparingly, seeing action in only 15 games. But he has played well, averaging 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 8.8 minutes per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.

• The Gophers wrestling team continued its perfect season in dual meets with a 17-16 win over No. 6 Penn State on Sunday. The Gophers are the top-ranked dual squad in the nation. They are 10-0 this season and 6-0 in the Big Ten.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com