REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. – Richard Pitino walked into a community center banquet room and a group of fans immediately surrounded him in search of autographs, pictures and a few words with the new Gophers men’s basketball coach.
“I’ve had about 20 people come up to me and say, ‘No pressure, just a Final Four is all we’re asking for,’ ” he joked.
This is a side of the young Pitino we haven’t seen in the six weeks since he replaced Tubby Smith. Between recruiting, hiring a coaching staff, evaluating players and settling into a new job, Pitino has been too preoccupied to offer a sneak peek into his personality.
In interviews, he’s come across as an ultra-serious basketball prodigy who learned the game from the cradle with a Hall of Fame coach as his father. On Thursday, Pitino showed he has a sense of humor and some charisma, too.
Pitino joined athletic director Norwood Teague, football coach Jerry Kill and a few other coaches on the first leg of a 16-stop road trip around the state to promote Gophers athletics (and presumably boost fundraising). A crowd of 400 people attended a luncheon in this small town about two hours southwest of the Twin Cities.
Pitino spoke last and delivered a few zingers that made a favorable impression with the masses in his first public event outside of the Twin Cities. A few of his quips:
• On his frenetic style of play: “I feel like we need to be like the Harlem Globetrotters the way you guys are anticipating the way we’re going to play.”
• On whether he will schedule Louisville, his father’s team: “Not yet. I’m trying to get a D-II school out of Louisville to come in here.”
• On center Elliott Eliason: “He won’t be able to play until he beats me in a pushup competition.”
• On center Mo Walker: “He’s lost 20 pounds, which is great. That’s a deck chair off the Titanic, as they say. He’s got to lose about 40 more.”
• On forward Oto Osenieks: “I said, ‘Oto, do you have the nickname Oto-matic?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Then I looked at his stats and he made two threes [all season].”
For the record, Pitino followed each joke with plenty of praise while noting that he likes what he sees from the returning players based off individual workouts and private conversations. And he promised to schedule Louisville in the future. And he definitely loves his style of play and thinks it can be successful at Minnesota.
“It’s going to be exciting,” he said. “It’s going to be up-and-down basketball. We’re going to shoot a lot of threes.”
Pitino Ball will look foreign to Gophers fans. Whether it works remains to be seen, but Pitino’s entire focus revolves around full-court pressure defense and run-and-gun offense. He’s quick to note that Florida International ranked in the top 10 nationally in steals last season.
“That’s an indication of how aggressively we play defense,” he said.
Pitino needs depth and guards to play that style and he’s added three newcomers to the roster in the past few weeks. He also wants to sign one more post player, but his team looks like it will rely on small ball in the short term.
“I like to play with two or three ballhandlers at a time,” he said. “I like speed. I think that’s the way that we need to play. If you look at Louisville’s team this year, they played basically with two point guards in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. That’s kind of the model.”
Now if he can only recruit players with that kind of talent. Joe Coleman doesn’t rise to that level, but contrary to rumors, Pitino didn’t encourage the junior guard to transfer this week.
“I wanted him to stay,” he said. “I thought he would have been a nice piece to what we’re doing. But I think Joe had thought about it over the last couple of weeks about potentially getting a change in scenery.”
The fact that Eliason and Walker don’t exactly fit the ideal profile for Pitino’s system has left people to wonder whether they also might look for a change of scenery. Neither center is fast or particularly athletic.
Pitino believes Eliason can become a “difference-maker” if he gets stronger and that Walker can make an impact if he gets in shape. Pitino said Walker has changed his diet and will remain on campus this summer to work on reshaping his body, which “shows a lot about him,” Pitino said.
“People concern themselves with how Mo and Elliott are going to fit,” he said. “They’ll be fine. They’re going to be in the back of the press. They’ll be fine. Guys like them can definitely play in this style.”
Pitino concluded his speech with a promise that drew cheers from the crowd.
“We’re going to play a fun brand of basketball,” he said. “It’s going to be entertaining.”
Chip Scoggins email@example.com