Jerry Kill had his preseason media availability on Tuesday, with camp slated to open on Friday for his Gophers. A couple of hours later, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino spoke with reporters in advance of his team’s trip to Spain — the first time we had chatted with Pitino in quite some time.
The dual interviews, both with the seasons ahead in mind, offered an interesting opportunity to check in with both coaches on a single subject: expectations. I essentially asked each of them the same question about how they approach expectations, and I found both the differences and similarities in the answers to be telling.
Kill’s Minnesota teams — albeit in four years compared to just two for Pitino — have shown an upward arc throughout his tenure. Sometimes it’s been more gradual. Sometimes it’s been a leap. But it is what program-building progress looks like. As such, Kill offered this Tuesday and it made perfect sense: “We’ve gotten better every year and everybody goes, ‘what do you want to do this year?’ And I want to be better.”
He didn’t lay out a specific record after the Gophers went 8-5 each of the past two seasons (including a 5-3 conference mark last year), but he did lay out a pretty specific goal: beat Wisconsin. Losing to the Badgers, he noted, was the difference each of the past two seasons between a good year and a great year (a win last season over the Badgers would have sent the Gophers to the Big Ten title game).
“They’ve been a pain in our butt. We had our opportunities last year,” Kill said. “Got to win the border games if you’re going to be a Big Ten champion and you want to play in that game. You’ve got to win the border games. Our expectation is we’ve got to get another brick, and that’s the brick.”
So what is success this season? Said Kill: “Just be better. Just be better than we were last year, and if we’re better than we were last year, I guess we’d be in the Big Ten Championship game.”
That’s pretty ambitious, but this program is at the point of ambition. It’s still in the business of measuring itself against itself — i.e. meeting internal expectations — but more and more the measuring stick is outside competition.
Pitino, about to enter year three as the Gophers’ coach and coming off a disappointing second year, is still in the business of managing and measuring expectations internally. He noted a couple of times how young this year’s team is and made it pretty clear that he knows outside expectations (and excitement) are not what they were a year ago.
“I do know this,” Pitino said. “After the first year, I had a lot of people coming up to me to tell me how excited they were about the next season. I don’t get that now. … We understand where we’re at. I’ve just got individual expectations for each guy. If we meet those, I think we’ll be a pretty good team.”
Pitino, too, was asked about Wisconsin — specifically coach Bo Ryan, who has announced he will retire at the end of this season. Ryan is 20-6 against the Gophers all-time, including 4-1 against Pitino.
“Thank goodness he’s gone,” Pitino joked before spending time lauding Ryan’s accomplishments — which at one point he called “miraculous.” The requisite question about emulating Wisconsin’s success came up, and Pitino did not bristle at it. “We certainly hope to get to that one day,” he said of Wisconsin’s sustained success.
Both Gophers coaches do. Both programs have been pretty far away from it for a while. But it was clear Tuesday which one was further along in the process of breaking through — which one is at the stage of expecting big things and which is merely at the stage of hoping they come one day.