The Little Richards of last winter have turned into a team that could still be playing when the NCAA tournament reaches the Sweet Sixteen later this month.
Richard Pitino has gone from a coach called out by his university president to begin the announcement of a new athletic director to the co-favorite to win the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year award.
Chris Collins has the whole “first-ever NCAA bid’’ going for him at Northwestern, but usually these Coach of Year and Manager of Year honors are decided by the level of surprise over a team’s success, and that advantage goes to Pitino.
I’d vote for Pitino if on a panel making such a selection, and there’s a considerable level of personal surprise in that, too.
On this two-game homestand, Reggie Lynch wasn’t called for a foul while blocking 11 shots vs. Penn State, and he stayed on the elevated floor for 28 minutes with three fouls vs. Nebraska on Thursday night, and when he’s playing and not sitting, Pitino has a complete basketball team.
Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason were all the Gophers had as players with a consistency of competence during the 2015-16 disaster, and now they have been phenomenal during this stretch run of the Big Ten schedule.
When the Gophers lost a fourth straight to go to 3-5 in the Big Ten, Pitino told the team’s then-diminished number of followers not to panic, and when it became 3-6 with another tough home loss to Maryland, he pointed to an easier road in the second half of the Big Ten.
He was right and then some. The Gophers can complete a 9-0 push through that second half with a win at Wisconsin on Sunday.
A year ago, Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan 12 games into the season and led the Badgers to the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. Now in his first full season, the Badgers have collapsed down the stretch, handing the Big Ten title to Purdue and looking like a team determined to offer up second place to the upstart Gophers on Sunday.
Maybe Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez was right in his reluctance to take away Gard’s interim title over the course of last season. And maybe former AD Norwood Teague was right when he ponied up that lucrative and constrictive extension for Pitino a short while prior to Woody being sent away in disgrace.
It was only the $7 million buyout that permitted Pitino to survive the worst season in 120 years of Gophers basketball in 2015-16. A year later, Pitino has put together and coached a combative, talented group that has given him the last laugh on his president, Eric Kaler, and less important critics, including this one.
And the laughter and accolades are not done yet for Pitino’s fourth team in Minnesota.
The Big Ten is going to get seven bids and perhaps eight to the NCAA tournament. Yet, it has been a hotbed for underachieving this season. Even Purdue, with the regular season title, hasn’t played up to the level anticipated (starting with its early home loss to the Gophers).
The only true Big Ten overachievers have been the Gophers. And now with Murphy playing great, and Lynch staying on the court, and Eric Curry getting better, they are as tough up front as deep on the outside with Mason, freshman Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and senior transfer Akeem Springs.
Before becoming a team no one wants to play in the NCAA tournament, it’s not hard to imagine them as the team no one can beat – including Purdue – next week in the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C.
The conference tournament started in 1998, one year after the Gophers won the now-vacated conference title with a 16-2 record that included a 12-game winning streak in the Big Ten.
These Gophers can make it 12 in a row vs. Big Ten teams, by winning in Madison against the reeling Badgers, and then sweeping three games for a first-ever tournament title.
Two decades of Big Ten tournaments and the only final for the Gophers came in 2010, a surprising push for a Tubby Smith team that then was whipped 90-61 in the final by Ohio State. That team was a 6-seed and had to win three games in three days to reach the title game.
Pitino’s Gophers are looking at a double-bye that puts a team in the quarterfinals. And carrying home a trophy from a Big Ten tournament would be much more noteworthy than the NIT hardware he brought home with a veteran team at the end of his first Gophers season in 2014.
Richard would be able to hold it high at a welcome home and laugh knowingly, at Kaler, and us critics of lesser significance.