As the college basketball season wrapped up in Indianapolis, Gophers coach Richard Pitino was down in sunny Miami, taking a couple of days of long-awaited vacation. The Gophers' 2014-15 campaign ended with a thud nearly a month ago, with a loss to Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament preventing any postseason. The 32-year-old coach said in an interview with the Star Tribune this week that he is disappointed in the lack of mental toughness evident in his team's nine losses by one or two possessions. But Pitino is also encouraged. He eschewed interest from Alabama and perhaps other programs in late March and early April and said he is focused on developing what is a young but intriguing Gophers bunch — almost all his own recruits now — for the 2015-16 season.
In his own words:
Q: Your name has come up in connection to a few different jobs already this offseason. What is that like for you, and how do you handle that kind of buzz?
A: Certainly, when your name is floating around with a lot of different job opportunities, a lot of it is pure speculation. People always wonder why you're not coming out and denying it left and right — it's just silly to go about it that way because most of it is not true. I said it a couple of days ago and I really believe it: I'm very happy here, and our work has just begun.
The thing I'm excited about — and it's not a knock on the last two teams — but this is going to be a team that is comprised entirely of players that I've recruited, besides Charles Buggs, but that part of it excites me.
Q: Alabama expressed interest in you, and the national media has tabbed you as an "intriguing option" for a few others. What do you think that says about the perception outside of Minnesota of what you've done here?
A: I hope people think we're doing a good job. So much goes into it. What we did at [Florida International] I thought was great. I never expected to be at a place like Minnesota so soon. I thought getting to 25 wins and winning an NIT title in the first year was something to be excited about, and I think potentially having a top-25 recruiting class, if we complete it the right way, is also something that's great.
Q: Is Minnesota a place you could see staying for a while? Raising your kids?
A: Absolutely. I love living here. I know people were [saying], 'Oh, he didn't come out and say he's going to stay forever.' Well, that's just so silly for anyone, at any place, to say. Because so many things go into what we do on a daily basis and so many things change year in and year out. I'm very excited about building here. … We have, and I've said this before, what other programs can't buy, and that's a great fan base.
Q: You could potentially have seven freshmen next year and 10 underclassmen. What are the challenges of all that youth, and how does that fit into the benefit of also having your own foundation (system, players, culture) in place?
A: There will be challenges because we'll probably be the youngest team in the Big Ten and one of the youngest in the country. And any time you have young teams, it doesn't matter who you're coaching, there are going to be challenges. Especially at a place like [Minnesota], where you're not going to get McDonald's All-Americans, unless they're in state, and even then it would be very hard to do. So you've got to let them grow, you've got to let them develop. But I'm excited about it, to be honest with you, because this will be my first time really where I can kind of put my imprint on these guys and get them to understand exactly the way we want to do things.
Q: Have you already thought about goals for this next season?
A: You never want to put wins and losses on it. I think what we want to do is build toward a situation where we're not just sneaking into the NCAA tournament but we're competing in it every single year. I think when you get a young nucleus like that [you can] build around [it] and grow. That's something where I don't know if it will happen right away — I hope it does. I think we've got to get a lot tougher. … Being tougher mentally, physically as well as more competitive with every little thing that we do. That's something I've got to do a better job of — getting them ready to go.
Q: You have three more scholarships you could potentially use this fall, but right now you have four freshmen signed — guards Jarvis Johnson, Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and power forward Jonathan Nwankwo. Which of those do you see as the most game-ready right now?
A: I would say all four of them, you just don't know yet.
Q: If the season started tomorrow, any ideas about what your starting lineup would be?
A: I would probably say Nate [Mason], Carlos [Morris], Buggs, Joey [King] and Bakary Konate. And the reason is because I know what I'm getting from those guys.
Q: Leadership, or the lack of it, was a theme that came up a lot last season. Do you worry about that again this year, especially with the only seniors being Carlos Morris and Joey King?
A: Joey will be a great leader for us because he's got everybody's respect; he's the hardest worker in the program. … Carlos Morris has become more vocal for a guy who you couldn't get him to open his mouth at all.
Q: What do you see as your biggest success from last year?
A: When you look at being able to beat Michigan State on the road, Iowa on the road, those were all really good moments. … I thought, more than anything, we've got all really good kids. When we started in that 0-5 start, and it was very difficult, obviously buzzer-beaters, blown leads, I'll say I was proud of our staff and our players for keeping a positive attitude throughout the whole thing. There was never really negativity that crept into our locker room … I was proud of that.
Q: And the biggest disappointment?
A: When you lose close games, a lot of the time it comes down to mental toughness. If we weren't mentally tough enough to get over the hump and win those games, then that's on me.