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Pitino following Tubby Smith's script so far -- but ending feels different

Richard Pitino entered Year 6 as Gophers men’s basketball coach with zero NCAA tournament victories, a Big Ten career record well below .500 and whispers (maybe louder than that) that his job could be in jeopardy while coaching under an athletic director who didn’t hire him.

His team survived the NCAA tournament bubble and won its first-round game against a higher-seeded opponent Thursday, giving the Gophers a rare victory in the Big Dance.

If that scenario sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar to the tenure of Pitino’s predecessor at Minnesota, Tubby Smith.

Smith’s time at Minnesota ended abruptly after that sixth season in 2012-13 — when he led the 11th-seeded Gophers to an upset of UCLA in the NCAA tournament before bowing out against Florida and then fired by then-athletic director Norwood Teague.

Smith’s tourney win was the Gophers’ first official NCAA victory since 1990 and their first on the court since the (vacated) Final Four run in 1997. No matter. Teague decided he had seen enough and wanted his own guy. A winding search led to Pitino, who was 30 years old and had just one year of head coaching experience at the time.

Smith made the NCAA tournament three times in his six seasons (with that one victory), finishing with an overall record of 124-81 and a Big Ten record of 44-62.

Pitino is 112-91 with two NCAA berths counting this season (with one victory and a chance for another Saturday) and a 40-70 record in Big Ten games.

And yet there’s a sense that Pitino has his team on a greater upward trajectory at this point than Smith did. There are reasons for that, which is where the scripts for the two coaches perhaps deviate.

With Smith, there was a sense that his tenure had peaked — that winning one NCAA tournament game was about as good as it was going to get and that the energy (or talent) for more just wasn’t there.

Maybe that doesn’t entirely justify Teague’s decision six years ago to fire Smith and pay him a $2.5 million buyout — shouldn’t the Gophers be happy to be in the tournament and win a game? — but it makes sense if you aspire to be better than average.

Pitino won an NIT title in his first year with a lot of Tubby’s old players after narrowly missing the NCAA field. From there, we saw a process of bottoming out before building back up after Mark Coyle arrived as athletic director — a regrouping that has yielded two NCAA berths in the last three years, with a disappointing 15-17 season a year ago sandwiched between.

More importantly, there is a sense that Pitino might get the Gophers beyond a point where they’re happy to win a game. It might not be this season, but you can imagine an Amir Coffey-led group being dangerous next season, especially if Eric Curry stays healthy. You can picture Gabe Kalscheur — 24 points in his tourney debut as a freshman Thursday, a game in which he and his entire team played wonderfully while Pitino’s game plan shined — being a four-year starter and keying an NCAA run or two.

It might not happen, but it feels more likely to happen than it did six years ago. That’s the biggest difference between the two coaches with very similar resumes at this point in their Gophers careers.

Is it time for Vikings to trust Kyle Sloter as their backup QB?

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where sometimes it’s the next guy’s turn. Let’s get to it:

*Wednesday brought some interesting news in that former Vikings backup QB Trevor Siemian agreed to a one-year deal with the Jets.

He is now the McLovin’ we lost.

The question now for the Vikings is whether they trust Kyle Sloter enough to be QB2 behind Kirk Cousins, whether they will bring in another clear-cut backup or whether they will settle somewhere in-between.

Sloter, you’ll recall, went undrafted in 2017 and was in camp with the Broncos before the Vikings made an aggressive bid — paying him nearly triple the going rate for practice squad players — to add him. He served primarily as the No. 3 QB each of the last two seasons, including a year ago firmly behind Cousins and Siemian.

He had a strong preseason in 2018, completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 366 yards, four TDs and no interceptions.

But if you’re the Vikings — with so much riding on 2019 — do you roll with Sloter? Our Andrew Krammer reported that the Vikings wanted Siemian back and are exploring other options, so it would seem at least like they had budgeted for another QB.

Given how pressed up against the salary cap they are, though, maybe that’s a place to save money? Add in the fact that Cousins has started all 16 games each of the last four seasons (taking every snap last year with the Vikings) and the fact that Sloter might be ready for an increased role and maybe the Vikings go that route? Or maybe they hedge their bet and bring in another low-money QB to battle with Sloter for the backup spot?

For what it’s worth, Cousins seems pretty comfortable with Sloter. He posted a picture on Instagram of the two of them working out together last week, and Sloter commented: “Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait.”

Maybe they’ll be 1-2 on the depth chart in 2019?

*The Timberwolves’ announcement that Robert Covington, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose are all expected to miss the rest of the season sure comes at an interesting time. Maybe the team was just waiting for clarity on all three, but announcing them at the same time gives the impression that the Wolves — all but eliminated from the playoff race — have shifted their focus.

*Ichiro retired, ending one of the best and most interesting baseball careers in recent memory. I had a chance to talk to Ichiro and Pete Rose about the pursuit of 4,256 hits a couple years back, if you have a few minutes to spare.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Gophers women's hockey vs. Cornell

    3 pm on BTN

  • Boston vs. Twins (spring training)

    5:05 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

  • Wild at Washington

    6 pm on FSN, NHLN, 100.3-FM

  • Northern Iowa at Gophers women's basketball

    6:30 pm on 96.7-FM

  • Twins vs. Baltimore (spring training)

    5:05 pm

  • Wild at Carolina

    6 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers men's basketball vs. Michigan State

    6:45 pm on Ch. 4, 1130-AM

  • Timberwolves at Memphis

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

  • N.Y. Yankees vs. Twins (spring training)

    12:05 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Rochester vs. Twins (spring training)

    12:05 pm

  • Nashville at Wild

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

  • Colorado vs. Twins (spring training)

    1:05 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • L.A. Clippers at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Cleveland at Twins

    3:10 pm on FSN, 830-AM

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