When the Gophers men’s basketball team boards its flight to Barcelona next week, the team will do so with an ease that hasn’t accompanied any other road trip of the Richard Pitino era.
The coaches won’t be combing through scouting reports at 10,000 feet. The players won’t have game plans memorized. Upon their arrival, rather than walkthroughs and shootarounds, the Gophers will be taking boat tours and going to Flamenco dance shows. And when they do step on the court, the general rule will simply be “stick to our principles,” Pitino said Tuesday.
But despite the relaxed vibe, this excursion could play a big role in how a team that slumped its way to a 6-12 Big Ten record a season ago shoulders the upcoming season.
“Just being with them in a different setting, away from everything, away from all the distractions, it forces you to [get] closer,” said Pitino, who last participated in a foreign tour as an assistant with Louisville in 2011, when the Cardinals traveled to the Bahamas.
That year, Louisville — led by Pitino’s father, Hall of Famer Rick Pitino — ultimately advanced to the Final Four before losing to Kentucky. The younger Pitino certainly isn’t predicting any such leap for his own squad, but he sees value in such a trip, especially with seven freshmen and sophomores on the roster.
“That was the closest I had been to a group as an assistant coach,” Pitino said of the Bahamas trip. “You’re hanging out, really in such a different setting. Sometimes you forget when you’re here, they’re going to class, getting ready for practice, you kind of get wrapped up in your own little world of recruiting and so on.”
In Spain, the team will play four games — two in Barcelona and two in Madrid — against local club teams in 10 days, which leaves time for other adventures. In addition to the dance shows and cruising the beaches, the Gophers will tour the FC Barcelona soccer stadium and allow sophomore big men Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou — who each played in Spain before arriving in Minnesota — to act as tour guides for the trip.
“They don’t know anything around here so they need to prove to me that they know something over there,” Pitino joked. “They’re excited, they’re very excited, and I’m excited to see them in that element.”
Pitino said this summer trip — the team leaves Monday — throws a young team “into the fire” early, with experience against true opponents. At the same time, he doesn’t plan to coach and push his team the same way that he will come November, when the games begin to count.
“I hope I don’t overreact if somebody doesn’t play well in Spain,” Pitino said, later adding: “I mean, we’re going to Flamenco shows after the game. We don’t normally do that.”