Richard Pitino said when he took the Gophers men's basketball coaching job in 2013, he sat down with some of his new bosses and looked at what success — and failures — he could expect in his first few years.
Year 3 always felt like a rebuilding season — but the extent to which the Gophers have struggled this season caught even Pitino off guard.
"I thought that we would definitely take a step backwards in order to take a major step forward," he said Friday. "I didn't think it would be this bad. I'd be lying if I said I did."
Pitino inherited a team that won an NCAA tournament game in Tubby Smith's final season. In Pitino's first season, one of the things that caught the new coach's eye was the eight juniors and seniors on the roster after he added a couple of transfers in Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu.
"I thought, 'We've got to build around this team a little bit,' " Pitino said. "I thought we had some pieces and we could sneak into an NCAA tournament with that. Obviously I thought we were extremely close the first year, and I still don't think we were that far away [last year], and I told those guys, I think we're going to rebuild big-time in Year 3."
Instead, the trajectory has led to a deeper-than-expected tumble. After winning the NIT title in Pitino's first season and missing any postseason invitation a year ago, this season the Gophers are 6-11 and have started the Big Ten slate 0-5 after getting crushed by 25 points in back-to-back games.
In the most recent defeat, an 84-59 loss at Nebraska on Tuesday, the Gophers started three freshmen and two sophomores with a clear eye toward the future. Pitino said that group communicates well and is "the most confident together" and added Friday that he expects to use the same starting five in Saturday's home game against Indiana.
That lineup — freshmen Dupree McBrayer, Ahmad Gilbert and Jordan Murphy and sophomores Nate Mason and Bakary Konate — actually helped the Gophers jump to an 8-4 lead against Nebraska.
"I think we have a lot of chemistry in that group. I know we're just trying different things right now, but I liked the effort that we gave," Murphy said.
But early foul trouble and early substitutions exposed the team's lack of depth, a major factor in the Gophers' recent dive. Pitino pointed out two personnel factors that have contributed to those roster problems.
The Gophers staff made some decisions for last fall's recruiting class that valued future success over near-term success with the final two available scholarships.
The Gophers had several options for players they felt could give immediate impact but ultimately signed transfers Reggie Lynch (Illinois State) and Davonte Fitzgerald (Texas A&M), both of whom have to sit out this year because of NCAA rules. Lynch and Fitzgerald are supposed to play major roles next season, but for now their presence in street clothes has led to thinner depth and less talent.
The Gophers were also told freshman Jarvis Johnson wouldn't be medically cleared to play because of a heart condition, adding further roster troubles.
Pitino also brought up "recruiting mistakes" that led to wasted energy, attention and scholarships on players who could be veterans right now.
Transfer Zach Lofton, for example, was kicked off the team before the start of last season. In the same season, sophomore Daquein McNeil was arrested for felony assault and eventually dismissed, while freshman Josh Martin decided to transfer after only seven games.
"Now, did we make some mistakes that made it worse than it should be? Absolutely," Pitino said. "One hundred percent. … That compounded on the rebuilding part of it, so that led to it being kind of like this right now.
"The young guys are under a lot of pressure. Because of social media, because everything is on TV, and it's getting them to understand it. Maybe we should have done a better job of making sure we had some older guys in here to kind of balance that out. That's where I look back and say, 'OK, we can't let that happen again.'
"Whether I was right or wrong, I don't know, but that's where we're at."