When the Gophers hired Richard Pitino on April 4, 2013, there was some concern because it seemed like the Gophers search committee found no interest in the job from any of the top basketball coaches in the country. Pitino, 31, had only one year of head coaching experience, and there was some question if he was ready for the Minnesota job.

Well, there’s no question now that Pitino is proving to be the best hire possible with the success he is having with the Gophers this season, taking a team everyone thought was dead in the water and making them an NCAA tournament contender.

The Gophers are currently fourth in the Big Ten with their 4-3 record, after their 81-68 upset of No. 9 Wisconsin at Williams Arena on Wednesday, and when ESPN released its latest tournament bracket predictions Thursday, the Gophers were a No. 9 seed.

Minnesota lost starters Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe and Joe Coleman, who accounted for 41.7 percent of the Gophers’ scoring and 45.5 percent of their rebounding last season, and the big question was whether Pitino could find players to replace them. Many thought he would use players from the last class recruited by Tubby Smith, including redshirt freshman Charles Buggs or sophomore Wally Ellenson, but Buggs has played only 19 minutes this season and Ellenson has played only 62 minutes.

Instead, Pitino has found tremendous improvement in players such as Oto Osenieks, Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, while mixing in recruits such as former Florida International standout Malik Smith, junior college transfer DeAndre Mathieu and Drake transfer Joey King.

Osenieks is averaging 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds after averaging 2.2 points and 1.7 rebounds last year. Eliason is at 6.5 points and a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game after averaging 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game a year ago.

Walker was playing only 6.6 minutes and averaging 2.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per game last season. Pitino told Walker he had to lose weight to play and Walker did, dropping 60 pounds. He is now averaging 13.4 minutes, 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds — including career bests with 18 points and nine rebounds Wednesday against the Badgers.

Mathieu, who originally walked on at Morehead State in Kentucky before spending one year playing junior college ball at Central Arizona College, has been perhaps the Gophers’ best all-around player. He’s averaging 11.6 points, a team-high 4.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Teams don’t win without a great point guard, and Mathieu reminds me of former Gophers star Ray Williams. Mathieu might be the best point guard the Gophers have had since then.

Smith is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game and the leading free-throw shooter at 88.6 percent. King has provided valuable minutes, averaging 6.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game and shooting 44.1 percent from the field.

Vikings coaches’ plans

Jeff Davidson will definitely remain with the new Vikings staff as offensive line coach, and special teams coach Mike Priefer also is going to stay. It would be a surprise if wide receivers coach George Stewart wasn’t kept unless he gets offered a better position by another team.

Not expected to remain on staff are tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson, defensive backs coach Joe Woods and defensive line coach Brendan Daly.

Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams will join the Lions as defensive backfield coach under new Lions coach Jim Caldwell. Williams worked for Caldwell in the same job when both were at Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the Eagles and Giants must think Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson have some talent. Musgrave has been hired as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, and Johnson was named the Giants’ running backs coach.


• University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, when asked about rumors that Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague was a finalist for the Virginia Tech AD job, made it clear he is convinced Teague is staying at Minnesota.

• Former Gophers all-around athlete Eric Decker was a two-time letterwinner in baseball at the U, but he instead chose to play football with the Broncos and helped Denver reach the Super Bowl with seven catches for 105 yards in the postseason.

• Local coaching ties with Rose Bowl winner Michigan State: Brad Salem, the son of former Gophers football coach Joe Salem, is the quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator for the Spartans. Mike Tressel, who graduated from Como Park High School and is the son of former Hamline coach Dick Tressel, is Michigan State’s linebackers and special teams coach.

• Longtime Twins chief groundskeeper Dick Ericson, now retired, has been voted into the MLB Groundskeeper Hall of Fame.

• Former Richfield hockey player Cole Gunner is now playing for Air Force and the junior winger is tied for 17th in the nation in scoring with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists).

• Gophers football coach Jerry Kill and defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel made a surprise stop in Mobile, Ala., to see Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward, two former players who were practicing for the upcoming Senior Bowl on Saturday. Kill and Sawvel were recruiting in Alabama when they decided to surprise the players.

• Hockey players who were with the Gophers last season and now are in the pros include Nick Bjugstad with the Florida Panthers, who in 44 games has 11 goals and nine assists; Erik Haula, who is with the Wild and has one goal and two assists in 18 games; and Nate Schmidt, who is with the Washington Capitals and has two goals and four assists in 29 games. … Zack Budish is with the Milwaukee Admirals, a farm club of the Nashville team, and has three goals and five assists in 28 games; Mark Alt is with the Adirondack Phantoms, a Philadelphia affiliate, and has one goal and nine assists in 38 games; and Seth Helgeson is with the Albany Devils, a New Jersey AHL farm team, and has one goal and seven assists in 40 games.


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