Hartman: Pitino, Gophers exceed expectations

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2014 - 12:06 AM

Many critics picked the U to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, but the team is 12-3 after its first league win.

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At Williams Arena in the Big 10 Opener between the U of M and Michigan, head coach Richard Pitino coached a very tight game that the Gophers lost 60-63.]richard tsong-taatarii/rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com

The search for a Gophers men’s basketball coach after Tubby Smith was unjustly fired ended with a big surprise when Richard Pitino was hired, after several bigger-name coaches turned the job down. Nobody expected Minnesota to boast of a 12-3 record at this point.

The heart of the 2012-13 team was forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, who sparked the team to a season that ended with the Gophers beating a heavily favored UCLA team before losing to Florida in the NCAA tournament.

Many thought this would be more of a rebuilding year, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The Gophers have played only two Big Ten games but seem to be continuing to improve, losing 63-60 to Michigan on Thursday and beating Purdue 82-79 on Sunday.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, even though the Gophers didn’t play a strong preseason schedule, you have to salute the job Pitino has done with a group of players without any big stars. Guards Andre and Austin Hollins are fine players, but don’t quite fit the star profile.

The Gophers likely would have beaten Michigan, too, had Austin Hollins scored 18 points like he did against Purdue. He had two points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field against the Wolverines.

Pitino talked about Austin’s performance against the Boilermakers.

“Austin played great,” he said. “Nine rebounds and was very efficient. Had a couple turnovers, certainly, towards the end of the game that we’ve got to shore up, but he was a great leader on the court and he did some things defensively that were very, very good and it is good to see those guys come back. The biggest issue with the last game is that we were taking shots that we don’t practice, and [Sunday] we took shots that were practiced.”

Pitino was asked what he knew about his team after their first Big Ten victory.

“I think we have shown that we can be a really good team if we execute the right way,” he said. “I would hope, and it’s early, but I would hope that we always give great effort like we have done the first two games.”

Even though the so-called experts picked the Gophers to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, Pitino said he has a lot of confidence in his players. He knows conference road games will be difficult.

“We played at Richmond, and it was a tough environment and they’re a good team and we played really, really well [winning 74-59 on Nov. 16],” Pitino said. “We just have to take it one day at a time and not get ahead of ourselves. Penn State, I have not watched any film on them, so we’ll watch this film and get going on Penn State [Monday].”

Stadium naming rights

Steve LaCroix, the Vikings’ vice president of sales and marketing and chief marketing officer, has been appointed by the Wilf family to work on selling the naming rights to the team’s new stadium. The team also will use a search firm to help with the process, according to Lester Bagley, the Vikings’ vice president of public affairs and stadium development.

“We have engaged Van Wagner of New York to assist in the naming rights partnership,” Bagley said. “They have experience, they have worked with stadiums in other cities. They did the Jets and Giants, their leadership have worked on naming rights for Staples Center … and a number of others.”

Van Wagner Communications negotiated the naming rights for Met Life Stadium, where the Giants and Jets play, getting them between $17-20 million a year for 25 years. The Colts got $121 million over 20 years for Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the Vikings and the University of Minnesota still are working on an agreement for the use of TCF Bank Stadium for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Bagley was asked what the next step is for the Vikings.

“We’re still finishing up our program for TCF Bank Stadium and for our transition from Mall of America Field to TCF Bank Stadium, which is a complicated process because there are fewer seats and different seating arrangements,” Bagley said. “So we’re working hard on that and putting our finishing touches on that here in the next 10 days or so. When we get through that, we’ll turn our attention to the stadium builders license program and start to zero in on that, so probably another 30 to 60 days.”

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