Gophers' Pitino tries keeping it fresh for his players

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2014 - 8:33 AM

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino is entertaining all ideas to best develop his players.

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Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino will switch up drills and bring in speakers to avoid summer monotony.

Photo: TONY DING, Associated Press file photo

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Soon, the next phase will begin.

This week, the first of six fresh faces will begin to trickle in at Minnesota’s Dinkytown campus, and summer workouts for the Gophers men’s basketball team will start next month.

For 31-year-old Richard Pitino, the elemental facets of being a head coach at college basketball’s top level will no longer come as a surprise. The son of legendary Louisville coach Rick Pitino has talked of being somewhat shellshocked in his first year as a head coach, at Florida International, not yet comfortable with arguing with referees or how to coach when he couldn’t immediately call a timeout.

Now, at the start of his third season as a Division I head coach, there is still one aspect that will be new to him next season. The 2014-15 season will mark Pitino’s first as a second-year head coach at the same program.

That fact changes the game, he said.

“I’m excited about it,” Pitino said. “I just did two first years in a row, which is very difficult as a head coach. So now, moving into the second year, now we can focus on just getting better and learning from all the mistakes we made last year.”

The Gophers have six incoming players in guards Nate Mason, Carlos Morris and Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton (who won’t be eligible this season because of NCAA rules), forwards Josh Martin and Gastion Diedhiou and center Bakary Konate. Still, the consistency outweighs the change.

In light of that, the offseason schedule will diverge substantially from the agenda the Gophers pursued a year ago.

“[Strength and conditioning coach] Shaun Brown and I have talked, as well as the staff, just about getting as creative as possible with how we’re going to train this summer,” Pitino said.

Last year, the Gophers did a lot of 5-on-5 scrimmages and exercises aimed at getting the players comfortable with a new pick-and-roll-based offense and varied defense, which placed an emphasis on using the entire court and pressing at times.

“Not only because I wanted to establish the way we wanted to play, but also I needed to know what I had moving forward in recruiting,” Pitino said. “We’re going to do it different this year.”

Instead, Pitino said the team will concentrate on individual workouts and weight room work, with a twist.

After one season, in which the Gophers went 25-13 (8-10 in the Big Ten) and won the NIT championship, the coaching staff has a more focused picture of what the team needs to work on and can accordingly tailor the time. According to NCAA rules, programs are allowed two hours with the players per week, which teams can split up however they like.

Above all, Pitino said he has two aspects he wants his summer workouts to address: improving team chemistry and toughness.

“We had very good chemistry [last season], but strengthening that,” Pitino said. “And more than anything, getting tougher, to where maybe now we go into a road game and try to go get that key win. Or when we needed to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, we didn’t show up. So in my opinion, we need to get tougher.”

Last year, the Gophers played in seven regular-season games that were within four points or fewer at the end of regulation and lost five of them. They did win two games within that range in the NIT, against Florida State in the semifinal and Southern Methodist to earn the title.

Pitino said he and his assistants plan on reaching out to other programs for new ideas to keep the humid season’s schedule interesting. One of the coaches Pitino has talked with is Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, who for the past two seasons had his players go through a rigorous Navy SEAL-inspired boot camp, including a mini-version of the SEAL’s infamous “Hell Week.”

Then-senior Bradford Burgess told CBS Sports in the fall of 2011 that the training including carrying teammates, bear crawls, long-distance running, tug-of-war and sled tugging, among other things.

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