The Big Ten announces three all-conference basketball teams at the conclusion of each season. A first, second and third team, meaning 15 players total are honored.
The Gophers landed zero players on those teams the past two seasons under Richard Pitino, which raises a question: Is talent or coaching to blame?
A young coach hired in a power conference littered with coaching sharks inherited a roster filled with marginal talent, and the result has been so-so, at best.
Respectable in Season 1, miserable in Season 2, and now comes a critical third season for Pitino in terms of establishing momentum and an identity as he puts his stamp on his program.
Strangely, this also feels like a reset season. The Gophers have so many new faces and moving parts after a roster makeover that media day resembled the first day of a new school year.
OK, let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves and also tell us something interesting about yourself.
Pitino has his players now, not Tubby Smith’s, so that excuse/explanation can be put to rest. These players were hand-picked by Pitino to fit his system and his vision for how he wants to operate.
We finally will be able to evaluate Pitino’s coaching chops without being constantly reminded that he’s stuck with someone else’s players.
“There is a feel now in this third year that every guy in this program was recruited to play the way we want to play,” Pitino said. “You’re going to make mistakes like everybody does. But there is just the sense of, we sat in the living room with your family and we told you and your family about where we thought you’d be.”
Pitino’s bloodlines guaranteed nothing in his new job. He was hired at age 30 at a place where it is not easy to win. He was bound to experience growing pains, along with his team.
Fans seem to be in wait-and-see mode with Pitino. Still curious about where this is headed. Still skeptical that he’ll put down roots here.
Pitino certainly has brought more energy and enthusiasm than his predecessor, particularly in recruiting. His ability to land highly regarded Hopkins recruit Amir Coffey is significant.
Pitino’s staff seems detailed in game-planning, and the use of analytics reflects an acceptance of new ideas and trends.
His personality comes across as sarcastic and supremely self-confident, but that’s only an issue if he’s losing. If he wins, those traits will be viewed as harmless.
The internal dynamics have changed dramatically for Pitino, who lost his two most loyal allies in disgraced athletic director Norwood Teague and his top underling Mike Ellis.
Once a new athletic director arrives, a possibility exists that Pitino will enter his fourth season in 2016 with a new boss and no NCAA tourney appearances.
That’s why this feels like a pivotal season for him — not necessarily in wins and losses alone — but in his ability to rekindle a positive vibe and belief in his program after last season’s dud.
“I thought my first two years were extremely critical to move the program forward, to get everybody to understand the way that we’re going to play because I was such an unknown,” Pitino said. “I do know that this year is huge and next year will be huge and last year was huge. People aren’t patient, I’m not patient, so that’s how it works.”
Patience is dwindling, but it’s hard to envision his team making a big leap this season. The roster is young and largely unproven and undersized, though Pitino has upgraded its overall speed and athleticism in recruiting.
Pitino’s first two seasons felt like a weird science experiment. Just throwing different parts into a mix and seeing what happens.
He tinkered with lineups and seemed conflicted about how to incorporate his two raw international big men, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou. Year 2 was a mess.
The start of this season could be jumbled too, as he meshes all the newcomers. But success can be measured in other ways — development of players, more continuity, a relentless style of play, excitement and optimism in the Barn.
People can accept patience if they’re given reason to believe in the purpose.
That’s Pitino’s challenge in his third season, to make fans trust that he’s the right person for the job.