As the news of Richard Pitino agreeing to be the new Gophers men’s basketball coach leaked on Wednesday, Minnesota fans immediately reacted with positivity and excitement.
But a head coach’s real mark, and popularity, is not defined in the announcement, or even the news conference. His success will be defined on the court, where the 30-year-old Pitino — head coach last year at Florida International and the son of legendary coach Rick Pitino — will have a challenge on his hands.
It will only be Pitino’s second season as a head coach, and first in a prominent and rugged conference like the Big Ten. He inherits a squad that loses two of its top four scorers from a team that went only 8-10 in the league.
But with a fresh set of eyes — as athletic director Norwood Teague described his expected hire — some think the team could be newly inspired. Pitino’s age — which some view as raw while others see as a sign of hunger and drive — could help him communicate and better relate to a team that seemed to only lose confidence and connection with their coach as the 2012-13 season wore on. Current players were not made available for comment Wednesday, but outgoing senior Trevor Mbakwe talked about how Pitino might mesh with his former teammates.
"I definitely think it’s good – especially getting a younger guy in that maybe will relate to the players a little bit better," Mbakwe said. "There’s going to be a lot of pressure on him because he’s replacing Tubby Smith right away. I think it’s going to be a challenge for him to kind of prove himself at this level."
The Gophers are coming off a season with plenty of milestones. Minnesota was ranked as high as No. 8 in the nation at one point, took down a No. 1-ranked team at Williams Arena and seized the program’s first official NCAA tournament victory since 1990.
But ultimately, the Gophers disappointed in a season where the expectations were high: Minnesota finished as a nine seed in the Big Ten tournament and slid into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed.
Next year’s team will be without Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, both of whom averaged 10 points a game this season and anchored the frontcourt. The Gophers are also down to only one incoming recruit, Alex Foster. Alvin Ellis, a wing from the Chicago area, announced Wednesday before the Pitino news that he is reopening his search. But Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins return to the Gophers’ backcourt.
“I think he’s inheriting a pretty good group,” said Spencer Tollackson, a former Gophers player and current analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts. “I think this team with the talent that they have coming back, and hopefully if this guy is as good as people say he is, they could be a pretty good team next year.”
Pitino, who has five years of combined experience as an assistant at Florida (under Billy Donovan) and Louisville (under his father), had some experience with attempting a turnaround, taking over a Florida International program last year that hadn’t had a winning season since 1999-2000 until they went 18-14 under him.
Pitino has made an early impression as a tireless worker and an intelligent mind even dating to his early assistant jobs.
“He knew a lot about basketball,” said Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, who played at Northeastern when Pitino was an assistant coach there. “Great guy, you know, a real pro. Knows what he’s talking about. He’s not afraid of anything or any situation.”
Including next season’s Gophers.
Staff writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this report.