As the college basketball season wrapped up in Indianapolis, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was down in sunny Miami, taking a couple of days of long-awaited vacation. The Gophers 2014-15 campaign ended with a thud nearly a month ago, with a loss to Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament preventing any postseason. The 32-year-old coach said in an interview with the Star Tribune this week that he is disappointmented in the lack of mental toughness evident in his team’s nine losses by one or two possessions. But Pitino is also encouraged. He eschewed interest from Alabama and perhaps other programs in late March and early April and said he is focused on developing what is a young but intriguing Gophers bunch — almost all his own recruits now — for the 2015-16 season.
In his own words:
Q: Your name has come up in connection to a few different jobs already this offseason. What is that like for you, and how do you handle that kind of buzz?
A: Certainly, when your name is floating around with a lot of different job opportunities, a lot of it is pure speculation. People always wonder why you’re not coming out and denying it left and right — it’s just silly to go about it that way because most of it is not true. I said it a couple of days ago and I really believe it. I’m very happy here and our work has just begun.
The thing I’m excited about — and it’s not a knock on the last two teams — but this is going to be a team that is comprised entirely of players that I’ve recruited, besides Charles Buggs, but that part of it excites me. I’m excited about moving forward, really.
Q: Alabama expressed interest in you, and the national media has tabbed you as an “intriguing option” for a few others. What do you think that says about the perception outside of Minnesota of what you’ve done here?
A: I hope people think we’re doing a good job. So much goes into it. What we did at [Florida International] I thought was great. I never expected to be at a place like Minnesota so soon. I thought getting to 25 wins and winning an NIT title in the first year was something to be excited about, and I think potentially having a top-25 recruiting class, if we complete it the right way, is also something that’s great. So when you’re at a place like Minnesota, all those things go into it, and I think people understand that.
Q: Is Minnesota a place you could see staying for a while? Raising your kids?
A: Absolutely. I love living here. I know people were [saying], ‘Oh, he didn’t come out and say he’s going to stay forever.’ Well, that’s just so silly for anyone, at any place to say. Because so many things go into what we do on a daily basis and so many things change year in and year out. I’m very excited about building here. … We have, and I’ve said this before, what other programs can’t buy, and that’s a great fan base. That’s something a lot of programs would give everything to have. All the other things, the fundraising and things like that, we’re working on that and we’re moving forward. I definitely think you can win here. You look at how close we were really — and I know it may not appear we were close in the second year, but we were. We came out on the losing side [of close games] a lot. And in Year One, we were a basket away from the NCAA tournament in my opinion. So we’re really gearing up, more than anything, for sustained success. That’s what we really want more than anything. That’s got to be built and that does take time, but when we get there, it will feel great.
Q: You could potentially have seven freshmen next year and ten underclassmen. What are the challenges of all that youth, and how does that fit into the benefit of also having your own foundation (system, players, culture) in place?
A: There will be challenges because we’ll probably be the youngest team in the Big Ten and one of the youngest in the country. And anytime you have young teams, it doesn’t matter who you’re coaching, there are going to be challenges. Especially at a place like [Minnesota], where you’re not going to get McDonald’s All-Americans, unless they’re in state, and even then it would be very hard to do. So you’ve got to let them grow, you’ve got to let them develop. But I’m excited about it to be honest with you, because this will be my first time really where I can kind of put my imprint on these guys and get them to understand exactly the way we want to do things.
Q: Have you already thought about goals for this next season?
A: You never want to put wins and losses on it. I think what we want to do is build toward a situation where we’re not just sneaking into the NCAA tournament, but we’re competing in it every single year. I think when you get a young nucleus like that to build around and grow. That’s something where I don’t know if it will happen right away — I hope it does. I think we’ve got to get a lot tougher. … Being tougher mentally, physically as well as more competitive with every little thing that we do. That’s something I’ve got to do a better job of — getting them ready to go.
Q: You have three more scholarships you could potentially use this fall, but right now you have four freshmen signed — guards Jarvis Johnson, Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and power forward Jonathan Nwankwo. Which of those do you see as the most game-ready right now?
A: It’s hard because when you’re watching these guys in AAU, there are so many factors that go into it. How many games have they played in one day? It’s so difficult. And guys change when they come on campus. The other thing you don’t know is you throw so many things at them — now how do they operate when they’re thinking a lot, it slows you down a little bit. The biggest thing is who is ready to come in and pick up on all of our concepts, offensively, defensively. I don’t know — I would say all four of them, you just don’t know yet.
Q: If the season started tomorrow, any ideas about what your starting lineup would be?
A: I would probably say Nate [Mason], Carlos [Morris], Buggs, Joey [King] and Bakary Konate. And the reason is because I know what I’m getting from those guys. You never know what you’re getting from freshmen. I have high hopes, and I’m excited about them, but I know what I’m getting from all them. Game experience is huge.
Q: Leadership, or the lack of it, was a theme that came up a lot last season. Do you worry about that again this year, especially with the only seniors being Carlos Morris and Joey King?
A: I think everybody always looks toward seniors for leadership. I think that’s natural in most normal programs … but when four seniors leave, I think you’ll start to see other guys step up and come out of their shells a little bit. Because I think they all kind of wait their turn. I would prefer that they didn’t, but they do. I think Joey will be a great leader for us because he’s got everybody’s respect; he’s the hardest worker in the program. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he gives it his all. He’s been showing great leadership over the last couple of months, in workouts … Carlos Morris has become more vocal for a guy who you couldn’t get him to open his mouth at all. When you lose guys, you wait to see who else steps up, and Joey and Carlos certainly seem like they’re trying to do that.
Q: Do you think Nate has that potential as well?
A: I do. I think Nate has the confidence, I also think preferably your leader has got to be one of your best players … and Nate was consistently one of the better freshmen in our conference, so I think he gained the guys’ respect. He has very good leadership ability as well.
Q: You mentioned you’re looking into a good nonconference opponent. You won’t say which programs, but any more specifics you can give us?
A: One of the things we’re trying to figure out is home or away. We assume we’re going to get a home game in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, but we don’t know that for a fact. So the only thing that would be a little bit scary is: do you want to take a really young team with two games in the nonconference as well as in our Puerto Rico tournament, which seems to be a very strong tournament? So I’m trying to figure that part out. ... I thought where I made a mistake last year is we had a really tough first two or three weeks: Louisville [in Puerto Rico] and then going to [Madison Square] Garden [for the NIT Season Tipoff] and then at Wake Forest. That was pretty challenging. But then I don’t think we learned a whole lot in December about where we stood. And then I think those first two weeks in January, I think it took a lot out of everybody, and I think that’s my fault in not challenging them with a good game late in December.
Q: Your dad [Louisville coach Rick Pitino] has been vocal about starting a regular head-to-head between your programs, with a matchup in the Big Ten- ACC Challenge this year and then a home-and-home after that. You both had some mixed feelings about playing each other this past year, but in general do you like the idea of facing your dad’s team on a regular basis?
A: Yes and no. … He’s been there for 16 years and he’s at a program that has won national championships before him and been to several Final Fours, etc. We’re trying to get to that level, but we’re not even close to that level yet. They’ve got the resources to compete against anybody. I think we both understand that. Their aspirations and expectations, right now, are different than ours because we’re not at that level just yet. So I think we know that, but we also know that exposure … for us to get a national game, for everyone to understand who we are, what we’re about, how we want to play, that goes into what we’re trying to do. As for playing each other, there are positives and negatives. The one thing I’ll say is when you play in December or even play in November like we did, you’ve got two or three months after that where you can be on the same team. So I don’t really stress about that too much.
Q: What do you see as your biggest success from last year?
A: When you look at being able to beat Michigan State on the road, Iowa on the road, those were all really good moments. ... I thought, more than anything, we’ve got all really good kids. When we started in that 0-5 start, and it was very difficult, obviously buzzer beaters, blown leads, I’ll say I was proud of our staff and our players for keeping a positive attitude throughout the whole thing. There was never really negativity that crept into our locker room … I was proud of that.
Q: And the biggest disappointment?
A: When you lose close games, a lot of the time it comes down to mental toughness. If we weren’t mentally tough enough to get over the hump and win those games, then that’s on me. I have the regret of not getting them to that point, so that’s certainly something we’re going to work on extremely hard moving forward so whoever we do play the first game, we’re ready to roll with that.