SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Several years back, then-Gophers men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith scheduled his Gophers to play in the 2015 Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Now, Smith is back on the island with a different team — his young Texas Tech squad.
But 2½ years after his exodus, Smith will still get some court time with the maroon and gold — and a chance to show up his successor in a venue where history says he’s got the upper hand. His old team looks much different now, with Charles Buggs the only holdover recruited by Smith. Still, the reunion won’t be all foreign.
“Richard Pitino I’ve known since he was maybe 6 years old,” Smith said with a chuckle after earning a matchup with his old team Friday, when the Gophers narrowly slid by Missouri State 74-69 at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off hours before Texas Tech held off Mississippi State 74-72. “And guys like Charles Buggs and [Joey] King. We know a lot of people up there, so it will be good to see some familiar faces from Minneapolis.”
There was a 1-in-4 chance the Gophers would meet up with their former coach, and the stars aligned for that opportunity. Both the Gophers and Texas Tech lost their first game at Roberto Clemente Coliseum on Thursday before winning their second.
Texas Tech forced 14 turnovers and held off a late Bulldogs surge hours after the Gophers let an 18-point lead fritter away in the final minutes as they piled up 22 fouls and faltered against the Bears’ zone.
Missouri State went to the free-throw line 37 times, making 26, but Carlos Morris hit a big three-pointer for a 70-64 lead with 2 minutes, 35 seconds to go and Kevin Dorsey went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final minute.
“I think maybe we abandoned our defensive principles a little bit, got a little spread out,” Pitino said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of time. We had to choose between rest and working on some things, and we had to go with rest.”
The two games? Kind of similar. But Smith and Pitino’s recent coaching track records in holiday tournaments is distinct.
In his first three seasons as Gophers coach since replacing the fired Smith, Pitino has had a challenging experience during Thanksgiving-time tournaments. In his first season, the Gophers traveled to Hawaii for the 2013 Maui Invitational, and they lost their first two games — to No. 8 Syracuse and Arkansas — and struggled to beat Division II Chaminade in their final game. Last year, the Gophers flopped at St. John’s in New York’s NIT Season Tip-Off before pulling out a close one vs. Georgia.
Smith has had the opposite experience in recent years. In 2012, his last season with the Gophers, Smith guided the Gophers to victories over No. 19 Memphis and Stanford after a loss to No. 5 Duke at the Battle 4 Atlantis; the previous year the Gophers lost to Dayton for the Old Spice Classic championship in Orlando. His last trip to Puerto Rico Tip-Off? Smith’s Gophers squad won it, going through No. 8 North Carolina to get there.
Neither coach is in the running to win the tournament this time, but the pressure will be up on both ends — for Smith, a point of pride after being stripped of his duties despite an NCAA tournament victory in 2013; for Pitino, to avoid the embarrassment of getting bested by the man whose legacy he was supposed to eventually top.
Both know that an offshore victory, even without the drama, doesn’t come easily.
“You always worry about it,” Smith said. “You could come away 0-3 … it can really be a rough time or you can go undefeated like we did [in 2011] and win it. You play three games in four days so you’ve got to be able to utilize your bench. I think that’s been the key to our success in these tournaments — keeping guys fresh, not just physically but mentally and psychologically as well.”