I predicted it would be extremely difficult for the University of Minnesota officials to find an elite men’s basketball coach to replace Tubby Smith, who has a great reputation around the NCAA. Most established coaches knew it would be difficult to follow him at Minnesota.

A lot of colleges would have been happy with the 21-13 record Smith put together last season, including a second-round victory over UCLA in the NCAA tournament.

The time to fire him was not when next season’s recruiting class features the best group of Minnesota seniors in years. These were nationally ranked players — including Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones, Cooper’s Rashad Vaughn and DeLa- Salle’s Reid Travis — who Smith and his staff had been recruiting for years, and now a new coach coming staff will have a difficult time trying to sell a rebuilding Minnesota program to players who are used to winning.

That’s why it made a lot of sense to hire Flip Saunders, with his experience as a coach in college and the NBA, but it was pretty evident that even though he was offered the job, he turned it down because he couldn’t operate under Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague’s terms.

Well, it turned out before and after the Saunders negotiations that it was difficult to hire a coach. Teague didn’t contact incoming coach Richard Pitino until Monday and hired him two days later, after Teague was turned down by a number of other candidates. And Teague didn’t contact Eric Musselman until a few days ago, and the son of former Gophers and Wolves coach Bill Musselman was available if Teague hadn’t decided to hire Pitino.

Kill proves it can work

Still, Pitino might turn out be a great coach despite his youth (30) and having only one year of experience as a head coach.

Hiring a big-time football or basketball coach has been difficult in the past for the Gophers, but some great coaches are out there that haven’t received as much publicity.

For instance, Jerry Kill wasn’t contacted for the Gophers football job in 2010 until a number of others turned it down. Kill was fifth on the Gophers’ list but he has turned out better than the No. 1 candidate, who supposedly was Brady Hoke, who was at San Diego State and was hired by Michigan in 2011.

Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten football title since it tied Indiana and Purdue in 1967, so a potential coach will assume there is some reason why the school can’t win.

And like I’ve pointed out in the past, the Gophers basketball team hasn’t been real successful because they play in 85-year-old Williams Arena, which doesn’t impress recruits, and they lack a modern practice facility like other schools.

Then you have the case of hiring athletic directors such as Joel Maturi. Jim Livengood, who was the athletic director at Arizona in 2002, was a finalist for the Gopher AD job along with Maturi. But Livengood, after studying the Gophers’ situation, withdrew as a candidate. Maturi was hired and did a fantastic job for 11 years.

The university hit the jackpot in the hiring of Kill, who I’m confident will be a winner. Let’s hope Pitino can be a winner just like his father, Rick, even though he wasn’t one of the top candidates for the job.

White in Final Four

Jake White, who played his basketball at Chaska High School, is a member of the Witchita State basketball team that will face Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday.

This season, the 6-8 sophomore forward averaged 3.6 points and three rebounds per game while appearing in 36 of the team’s 38 games. He also posted drastic improvements in his shooting percentage, going from a 39.5 percent shooter as a freshman to 46.8 this year.

“It’s a surreal moment, for sure,” White said. “I mean you grow up, even in high school, you watch March Madness and you can only dream of making it to the Final Four and making a deep run in March and everything. It’s just a really cool experience to have.”

White was a standout player at Chaska, being named to the Star Tribune’s All-Metro first team as a senior after averaging 23.3 points and 11.8 rebounds. White received offers to several Division I mid-major programs.

Wichita State has been on a hot streak, winning four games in the NCAA tournament since losing to Creighton in the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

“Our first game we beat Pittsburgh, and then we went and beat Gonzaga [and LaSalle], and then obviously our last game we just beat Ohio State,” White said. “I mean, we blew the lead [against Ohio State], we busted it wide open and we were able to get a solid lead on them, like you said 20 points, but during that run Coach [Gregg Marshall] just kept saying, ‘They’re going to make their run.’ Late in the second half they did, and we were able to hold on and get the victory.”

Jottings

• Former Twins superstar Torii Hunter said several teams pursued him before he signed with the Tigers. “The Braves, Phillies, Yankees, Boston, Texas Rangers, but I just felt like Detroit was the perfect spot for me,” he said. “The Twins never called me. But the Tigers were the perfect spot for me at the time. The Torii Hunter Project is something where I work with inner-city kids, Detroit really needs that push. And I’m 2½ hours away from my son, who is going to Notre Dame.”

• Alvin Ellis, the Chicago De La Salle guard who committed to the Gophers but decommitted after Smith was fired, scored more than 1,000 points in his career, earned All-Area honors and averaged 20 points, six rebounds and four assists for a 17-8 team this year. Alex Foster, the Seton Academy (Ill.) forward who still is committed to Minnesota, averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds and was named Class 2A all-state.

•  St. Thomas Academy running back Pat McFadden will walk on at Stanford, where his older brother, Conor, is a redshirt junior as a center.

• Following the Wild’s acquisition of Sabres captain Jason Pominville, Minnesota has the fifth best chance to win the Stanley Cup, according to Las Vegas sports book Bovada, at 12-1 odds.

• Former Twins Denard Span and Wilson Ramos are off to nice starts for the 3-0 Washington Nationals. Span is hitting .333 in the leadoff position with two runs scored and one RBI. Ramos is hitting .400 with one run scored in two games.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com