ADVERTISEMENT

Can Pitino's style succeed in Big Ten without elite players?

  • Blog Post by: Amelia Rayno
  • May 29, 2013 - 11:18 AM

This ESPN watercooler meeting is a few days old, but after a reader brought it to my attention (thanks, Bob Fry), I thought I’d post it up here for our debate.

In the above article, former Star Tribune beat writer Myron Medcalf relates an anecdote from a conversation he had with an anonymous Big Ten coach. In that exchange, Medcalf asked the coach about how new Gophers’ coach Richard Pitino’s press-and-run style will fit into the Big Ten.

From the ESPN article:

That coach paused for a moment, and essentially suggested that the particular brand of basketball just doesn't work (consistently) in the grind-it-out, physical conference unless you're equipped with elite talent throughout your roster.

Minnesota lost Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman (transfer). The Gophers have Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins, as you've mentioned, but they're not elite.

Pitino has some solid pieces. But the combination of a new staff, a new style that might not work in a new league and the team's voids could lead to a messy season for the Gophers. Not that the expectations are sky high or anything. But I have a lot of question marks about the program.

Some things never change, I guess.

Is this true? There are certainly teams in the Big Ten that are successful in that brand – programs like Indiana and Michigan, but those teams have the kind of elite talent that coach is talking about.

The Gophers won’t have anything close to players of that caliber next season. So is that coach right?  Without that level of personnel will Minnesota crash and burn?

There are plenty of teams that will actively work to slow the pace down (first and foremost of course being the fellows over in Madison) and there are enough low-scoring, defensive-oriented games that the league has certainly gotten the reputation as one that grinds it out all the time.

I actually posed a similar question – about the facility of the up-tempo game against the Big Ten’s defenses -- to Pitino at his initial press conference after he was hired with the Gophers. After all, former coach Tubby Smith had been talking about playing that way for years, and it never really showed up on the court after the non-conference schedule.

Here’s what Pitino said in response to that question at the press conference:

“I look at it the other way. I look at it as how excited I am to go against those [defenses.] The one thing I think the style does is it tries to take you out of your comfort zone. I think it’s a bit of a misconception that the Big Ten is slow-down basketball. I watched Indiana play. That was extremely fast-paced, as well as other programs.”

Because Big Ten teams do have to play against snail-paced squads like Wisconsin and Nebraska, as well as defensive juggernauts like Michigan State and Ohio State, the overall conference tempo is dragged down some as a general rule. Yet not every team plays extremely slow. Even teams like Iowa (which had the highest adjusted tempo in the league last year, ranked at 104 nationally according to Ken Pomeroy) and Purdue had success pressing and running at times … and without the elite talent Medcalf's anonymous coach cited.

I’m sure that Pitino – whose Florida International team landed at No. 48 in the country in adjusted tempo last year – could envision a roster that is immediately more talented than the current one. To be sure, while the Gophers do have some good players, next year could be a bit of a struggle regardless of the style of play.

But with his clear vision (it is apparent already that he has an obvious player “type”) and strong recruiting efforts, his idea will be to strengthen that roster. Over time, if he can recruit the type of athletes he believes will thrive, and develop those athletes properly, I think his run-and-gun style could absolutely be successful at Minnesota.

The biggest note, however, is that a style's success should not be judged on one year. Wait until Pitino gets his own players and acclimates the holdovers to his style (this won’t happen overnight) – when he has done the best he can do in those two regards, then we’ll know whether his style can work in this league.

In the meantime, I don't think it makes much sense for Pitino to change the tenets of his coaching philosophy just because he doesn’t have his ideal roster in place. Will the team struggle in that regard at times? Yes. Absolutely. But it should be an interesting project to watch, and an intriguing building block for potential future success at Minnesota.

© 2014 Star Tribune