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.”

Are there still major issues with playing at TCF Bank Stadium?

“We have the fundamental agreement, the use agreement has been resolved,” Bagley said. “But there is still a handful of items: the capital improvements to the stadium, which heating system goes in, what we’re going to do in terms of seat expansion, capacity expansion, some concession issues and weatherization issues, so we’re working hard with the university’s leadership to bring those issues to a close. Certainly sometime in January, we believe those things will be resolved.”

Jottings

• How good a defensive coordinator will former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier be for the Bucs? During Frazier’s time with the Colts, the team’s pass defense improved from 15th overall in the NFL in 2005 to second in 2006, the year the Colts went on to beat the Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI. As the Vikings defensive coordinator in 2007, he led the defense to a sixth overall ranking in 2008 and 2009 and eighth in 2010 after finishing 20th in 2007. When Frazier became Vikings head coach and gave up running the defense, the unit finished 21st, 16th and 31st in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

• Apparently, former Vikings offensive coordinator and current Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is in demand as a potential NFL head coach. Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen made a trip to Seattle this past week to interview Bevell.

•  One reason Atlanta wants to hire Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson is that even though the Falcons have a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, the Falcons’ offensive line fell apart. The team dropped from a 13-3 record in 2012 to 4-12 this season. The Vikings to date have refused permission for Atlanta to talk to Davidson, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman urged the new Vikings coach to keep Davidson, who is ranked among the best offensive line coaches in the NFL.

• Rodney Williams continues to play well for the Delaware 87ers in the NBA D-League. Williams is averaging 9.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game on 44.3 percent shooting. … Trevor Mbakwe is playing for Virtus RM in Italy and in 14 league games, he is averaging 9.4 points and 10 rebounds a contest. In 10 Eurocup games, he is averaging 6.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 22.7 minutes a game.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.

shartman@startribune.com

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