Richard Pitino sat at the podium, cocking his head.
The question, posed by a media member, regarded drawing on previous experiences in getting through the tough times that have descended on the Gophers (12-8 overall) after a 1-6 start to conference play.
Lessons learned from struggles? The 32-year-old coach hasn’t really had any — not at this level and this stage of coaching anyway.
“I mean, I was at Louisville and Florida,” he told the reporter, when the Gophers were just 0-4. “It’s a little bit different.”
What a change it’s been. Hired into a program that was fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance but had long lacked stability and upward growth, Pitino knew the road would be tougher than his recent past. Last season, the Gophers narrowly missed the NCAA tournament but won the NIT, a result that seemed to be pleasing and encouraging to most followers.
There likely isn’t anything that can prepare a team to go through the lows the Gophers have endured heading into Saturday’s game vs. Illinois. But these struggles have been brand new, not just for most of the players but for their young coach as well.
“Games take a lot out of you,” Pitino said. “And when you lose close games, it takes even more out of you.”
Before this season, Pitino would have had to think all the way back to his Duquesne assistant days (2006-07) to remember a losing streak as bad as Minnesota’s current slide. That year, the Dukes went through two big losing streaks — seven games in a row early on before ending that 10-19 season on an eight-game slide. But the next season, Pitino was off to Louisville, where he went to the Sweet 16 for consecutive years before landing in Florida long enough to reach an Elite Eight. Then it was back to Louisville, for a Final Four.
“I didn’t even go through it at FIU, to be honest,” Pitino said of his first year of head coaching at Florida International, before taking the Minnesota job.
All of that has flipped this year. The Gophers have won only one Big Ten game — at home against Rutgers — although five of six losses have come by two possessions or fewer.
Pitino is learning the balance between emphasizing the players’ weaknesses in those persistent losses and emphasizing their strengths in the near wins.
“It’s early for us here,” he said. “We’re going to be, right now, in close games at the stage of this program. … In the end, it’s the support from the players, the support from the staff and just staying together as much as possible.”
Friday, he said he hasn’t worried about switching things up to get his players to respond. Their attitudes have been great all season, he said. But as the losses have piled up, he has tried shaking up the lineup (benching three starters), swapping point guards (freshman Nate Mason has started the past three games) and handing minutes to the raw players (Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou).
In news conferences, he’s finding the right tone as well. After a 62-57 loss at Michigan, Pitino’s media session lasted less than five minutes with the coach looking shellshocked and uttering one-sentence answers. At Nebraska on Tuesday — one of the Gophers’ ugliest losses of the year — his air couldn’t have been more different. The coach stepped to the microphone and immediately lauded his team’s effort and execution, which he called the best of the year.
“The Michigan game really bothered me,” he said. “It really bothered me, just because of the things we did in that game. I watched the Nebraska game [on film] and I wasn’t really that bothered. I was positive after the game.
“The biggest challenge has been, when you’re playing hard and working hard and you’re not winning, keeping them positive,” he said. “But also understanding that you’ve got to hate losing too.”
Across the Twin Cities, that last sentiment is shared. During Minnesota’s slump, social media pundits and local writers trumpeted a little less optimism for a coach who was mostly a popular hire after Tubby Smith failed to take the program to the next level.
On Thursday, athletic director Norwood Teague declined to comment on how he felt his coach was doing in Year 2.
Only the most reactive of sports fans would start re-evaluating Pitino’s future now given that his six-year contract (paying him $1.2 million per) is still in its infant stages. The season is still early, and Pitino — always paid for his upside, not his immediate pull after one season at FIU — should have plenty of time to change opinions.
For now, he’s preaching patience: to his players, to the fans, to himself.
“I understand we’ve got a passionate fan base that wants to win,” he said. “That’s better than having a fan base that doesn’t care, which is always difficult. So, I’m not a big believer in overselling, underselling. We are where we’re at right now. I like our players, I like the direction that we’re headed and we’re working hard.”