Gophers coach Richard Pitino isn’t at the Final Four in San Antonio this year, but he knows a lot about one of the opponents and is excited for Minnesota to host college basketball’s biggest event next year.
In a Q&A with the Star Tribune this week, Pitino talked about Michigan’s defense helping it get this far, what it means for the 2019 Final Four to be in Minneapolis, recruit Daniel Oturu winning a state title, transfers in college hoops, if his Hall-of-Fame father coaches again and more.
Q: Can you imagine what it will be like a year from now when the Final Four is in your backyard?
A: I do think it’s awesome. When I took the job here five years ago, I never quite understood what type of a basketball state it was. It’s so evident from our games, to the Wolves games, to high school basketball games. The crowds and the enthusiasm and the interest is so good. So to have the college basketball world focused on the Twin Cities next year will be really, really special.
Q: I’ve been hearing a possible Big 12 opponent for you next season as a warmup game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Has anything been finalized yet?
A: We’re working on it right now. When the Big Ten changed from 18-20 games it through a bit of a wrench into the nonconference portion of trying to figure out the schedule. We’re working through that. I want it to be a good, quality opponent for sure. I think it’s a good opportunity for our fans to get into that stadium and see basketball. It’s going to be really cool. It’s a good opportunity for us to play a quality neutral site opponent. Just trying to figure it all out and put the pieces together. We have to play two Big Ten games in early December, so we’re trying to figure everything out there.
Q: Does it really count as a neutral site game being that it’s in Minneapolis?
A: We looked into that because I wasn’t sure what the rules were, but it would be a neutral site game. I’m not sure how many teams will be willing to play us there in the future (chuckle).
Q: What do you think has improved with Michigan defensively to help the Wolverines get to the Final Four this year?
A: I don't know if it’s the staff (adding Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich), but that’s great if so. Credit to coach John Beilein. I do think that their personnel is really fitting for a good defensive team. As coaches if you have the right personnel you can really do some good things. They’ve got some quickness and some length. They’ve always had good size across the board, but it’s pretty good now. Certainly when you have that and a commitment to doing it that can be a really valuable asset to your team.
Q: They don’t really have a great shot-blocker or rim protector but still defend at a high level. How are they able to do that in your opinion?
A: Perimeter size is big. Obviously, last year we had a really good defensive team. Everybody thought it was just Reggie Lynch being a rim protector, which he was. But it’s very, very important to have length on the perimeter, because a lot of teams shoot threes. The biggest thing to stop it is to get out there with a high hand. So Dupree (McBrayer) and Amir (Coffey) and those guys have long wingspans. Jordan (Murphy) as well. So it’s important to have that type of personnel and be committed to doing that defensively every single day.
Q: No team has scored more than 72 points on Michigan since the Gophers did in an overtime loss in Ann Arbor in February. What did you do differently against Michigan to have success offensively?
A: I think we were penetrating very well. I played Isaiah (Washington) and Nate (Mason) together, because Dupree was hurt. And we had no Amir. I was looking for all different types of combinations. They run a lot of things into ball screens. So we ended up switching the ball screens and their length didn’t necessarily affect us on the defensive side of it. So I was able to go with that smaller combination. I just thought both of those guys were creating movement and we were penetrating very well (Mason and Washington combined for 48 points).
Q: Any thoughts on fellow maroon-and-gold program Loyola-Chicago making a run to the Final Four?
A: I think it’s really cool. It reminds me a lot of George Mason several years ago. VCU had a run similar to that. Loyola is not probably the name of George Mason and VCU when it comes to mid-majors. But I think it’s great. Porter Moser stuck with it. He’s built it up the right way. It’s taken time. I don’t know him real well. But from I’ve read it just seems like he stuck with what they were trying to do and building it. They won the (College Basketball Invitational) recently. So I think winning games helped them. Without knowing their total roster, I just think those guys experiencing winning was the most important thing they could do.
Q: Didn’t it also help that his administration like Minnesota had patience with the building process?
A: In sports it’s hard because people want you to win and win right away. So your fans are always going to be impatient. But that’s what fans do and that’s Ok. It’s just a matter of can you and your staff stick with it and be patient. Stick with the plan. Trust in what you’re doing. They’ve done that.
Q: Do you think if Loyola beat Michigan and eventually won the national title it would shake up college basketball as we know it?
A: I do think that you can kind of tell the one-and-done thing this year didn’t hold true. The older teams are the ones that are flourishing. Nobody does it better than Villanova building that program and getting the right fit for what they’re trying to do. I think the story more than anything is the small-ball aspect of it. I think that Villanova is playing small. Kansas is playing small (four guards and a 7-footer). That part of it. So you can see Loyola being able to win that way, too.
Q: Will you be hiring a team chaplain anytime soon to be the Gophers version of Sister Jean?
A: I’ll do anything to help us get some wins for sure.
Q: What do you think about transfers becoming the trend in the Final Four this year?
A: Transfers are interesting. The one thing about transfers is if you get them they normally don’t transfer again. So coaches get excited about that a little bit. So that sit out year is really important. What I like about transfers if you get the right ones is they have game experience, which is hard to get. You never know what you’re getting from high school and AAU ball. With some transfers who played at a higher level is even better. Malik Newman played at Mississippi State. He played in the SEC, so that adjustment didn’t take as long. If you get the right ones that are hungry it’s really great.
Q: What’s your view on transfers becoming so rampant in college basketball?
A: Coaches get real sensitive when people question transfers just because everyone wants to know when guys leave what’s wrong with your program. I just think it’s part of the world we’re living in right now. The transfer numbers are really high. It doesn’t offend me. Just go and find the right fit. Most kids are giving it two years instead of four and reevaluate everything. When you do get a transfer it’s exciting because they usually have learned from their previous stops. They can normally flourish if you get the right ones.
Q: Graduate transfers are like gold for some teams, right?
A: Grad transfers are interesting because they’re a little bit different. You’re only getting them for one year, so you have to make sure it’s the right fit. With Akeem (Springs last year), we needed him to play a lot. We needed Akeem’s leadership. You never know what you’re getting from the intangible part of it, but Akeem really impacted our program just by the way he acted in the locker room. He stayed after shooting shots and lived in the gym. He was all business. If they see playing time there for them they can really be focused on the next step.
Q: Could you see a time when transfers are allowed by the NCAA to play immediately?
A: I think it’s going that way. I really do. My thing is this: I don’t agree with it, because I definitely think it’s going to be bad for our game. I think everybody is just going to want to transfer after one year. I just think that the side of it is going to be crazy. I understand why people want to do it. These student-athletes have rights and it’s hard. But it’s going that way. I don’t think it’s a matter of if it’s going to happen but when it’s going to happen. So it’s going to be a lot of transfers. Your roster is going to be influx. At the end of the day, it’s normal for everyone to question where they’re at. It’s a big decision. Whenever you’re recruiting at the end of the day it’s about if they fit your style of play and are comfortable in the environment you’re building. Normally, if you’re not transparent it’s going to blow up in your face eventually. So for us, it’s all about communicating with the parents and coaches and being very truthful with where you see their son or player fitting into your program.
Q: Davonte Fitzgerald decided to transfer for the second time. What was his reasoning for leaving?
A: Davonte and I spoke at the end of the year. I told him, ‘Are you sure you want to keep doing this? You’ve had three separate knee injuries. I just want you to be happy.’ It wasn’t a situation where I told him to transfer. He came to me after the year. He has a son who lives in Texas. He told me he wanted to get a little bit closer to him. I told him we would find him a good fit in Texas. I want the best for him. Hopefully, he stays healthy. I think this year will be good for him, because he’ll trust it and believe it. I’m rooting for him.
Q: Doesn’t it seem that you will have a lot more depth in the frontcourt next season?
A: There are a lot of question marks. But I’ve always been vocal about how excited I was about Eric Curry was a freshman. He got hurt and banged up pretty good, so we’ve got to get him back healthy and ready to go. Physically he’s capable. We just have to get him mentally getting comfortable with where he’s at. Matz (Stockman) has some ACC experience, but he didn’t play a lot. SO that’s a question there. Jarvis (Omersa) is as athletically gifted a player as we’ve seen. He was really good when I watched him this season. And I think Daniel was absolutely terrific every time I watched him. I’m really excited about those guys next season. We obviously had frontcourt depth issues with Eric going down and losing Reggie. But it will be really big for us to have that depth.
Q: Does Curry get a medical redshirt?
A: Yes. He does. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore next year.
Q: How cool was watching Oturu’s game-winning dunk to win Cretin-Derham Hall’s first state title in 25 years?
A: My wife and I were watching it. We’ve been stressed out all year with our games. And we were again. Great finish. Anytime you can recruit a kid who wins a state championship or comes from a winning program like all three of our recruits did that’s really important. They care about the value of a championship. If you watch the state championship those kids cared. That arena cared. It was really cool to see.
Q: The Washington Post did an interesting interview with your father talking about wanting to coach again. Do you think he will this year?
A: I haven’t spoken much about it because we were still in our season, but I worked for my dad for three years. I know the expectations when you work for him. Unfortunately, he had some people that let him down. The tough part of this recent thing is nobody knows how long this FBI stuff is going to take. You see these other universities and schools taking a wait and see approach with those implicated in it. So it’s hard for my dad’s situation because I don’t think anybody knows what the truth is. They would obviously have to believe him. I know 100 percent he had zero to do with any of that stuff. I know 100 percent he wouldn’t in a million years tell anyone to be involved in that stuff. If anyone was ever involved in a NCAA violation of some sort they were doing it without him knowing. So I don’t know if he’ll coach next season. It’s going to have to be somebody who believes in him. He’s one of the best coaches to ever coach the game. He wants to still coach. If I’m an AD that has an opening, I think I would be crazy not to consider him.