It was Richard Pitino’s first big date with Williams Arena, and once he was in the right mood, he began taking off his clothes.
With about six minutes left in the Gophers’ game against Florida State on Tuesday night, Pitino ripped off his jacket, throwing it to the bench in what was almost certainly an unintentional homage to Clem Haskins’ wardrobe-shredding antics. With less than five minutes left, he ripped off his tie.
Thankfully for those in the expensive seats, the Gophers earned their most impressive victory of the season, beating the Seminoles 71-61, and Pitino remained mostly dressed.
Pitino whipped his counterpart, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, and it has been a while since the Gophers enjoyed a marked advantage in coaching over a worthwhile opponent. Florida State had greater size and more experience playing in its coach’s system, but the Gophers confused the Seminoles with multiple full-court and half-court defenses.
Nine games into his tenure, there’s already plenty to like about Pitino, such as:
1. He has not adopted the worst cliché in college basketball, the head coach wasting time talking with his assistant coaches before entering the huddle during a timeout. Pitino immediately addresses his players, giving him more time to make his points and keeping him from looking like a wannabe Coach K.
2. He plays a style that should allow him to compete even without elite talent, a style that will take opponents out of their comfort zone. His father, Rick, wins big at Louisville without relying on blue chippers, or at least the kinds of players that make NBA general managers salivate. In at least this way, Richard is his father’s son. Pitino has a chance to be more entertaining in losses than Bo Ryan is in victories.
3. He adapts his lineups to suit his talent. He could have stuck with Andre Hollins at point guard and Austin Hollins at shooting guard, then filled in around them. Instead, he inserted the quicker, smaller DeAndre Mathieu at point guard and relies on a three-guard lineup that allows him to play fast.
4. He isn’t afraid of big-name nonconference opponents. He plans to play Louisville. That’s all you need to know.
5. He has a chance to do give nepotism a good name. Minnesotans still are reeling from the Saul Smith experience. Tubby Smith’s son didn’t seem to merit a high-profile position as a Division I assistant. Richard Pitino took advantage of the grand advantages of his birth, learning from his brilliant father before taking a nothing job at Florida International.
6. He extracts maximum effort from his players. Joey King is diving all over the floor despite a fractured jaw. Mo Walker has lost dozens of pounds preparing to play in Pitino’s running system.
7. He allows offensive freedom. Pitino has adopted an old coaching bromide — scream at players about defense, effort, rebounding and mental mistakes, but let ’em play with freedom on offense. “Coach gives us a lot of freedom,” center Elliott Eliason said. “He doesn’t even want us to look at him on the bench. He wants DeAndre or Andre to run the show the whole time. He wants us to play that up-tempo style of offense, so he doesn’t want us focusing on him when we should be playing.”
8. He has displayed the ability to game plan for an opponent. Note that when Pitino had a week to prepare for Syracuse’s famous matchup zone, the Gophers handled it easily. When his team had to play without much preparation, against Arkansas and Chaminade, the Gophers struggled.
“We’re doing a lot more to prepare this year,” Eliason said. “It’s been really helpful. We watch a lot more film, run a lot more stuff. When we have time to prepare for teams, we’re really tough. Coach has us really prepared to play these teams.”
9. He supports his bark with bite. He knows he needs Walker to compete this year, yet he suspended Walker for six games for a rules violation.
Tuesday night, Pitino said, “I thought we won the toughness battle.”
They won the coaching battle, too.
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