Richard Pitino said when he took the job at Minnesota, he sat down with some of his new bosses in the administration and looked at what success – and failures – he could expect in his first few years.
One of the things that caught his eye was the eight juniors and seniors on the roster after he added a couple of transfers in Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu -- and relatively few underclassmen, the opposite of Pitino's current predicament.
“I thought 'We’ve got to build around this team a little bit,'” he said on Friday. “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 bigtime in Year 3.”
But while Pitino expected to rebuild in his third season, this one has gone off the rails a bit. After missing the NIT a year ago, this year’s squad is 6-11 and has started the Big Ten slate 0-5 heading into Saturday’s home game against Indiana after getting crushed by 25 points in back-to-back games.
The struggles that have marked this season have 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. “I didn’t think it would be this bad. I’d be lying if I said I did.”
Pitino pointed out two other personnel factors that contributed to an even worse situation. The Gophers staff made some decisions for last fall’s recruiting class that weighed success now vs. success in the future with the final two scholarships available. Pitino and Co. had several options for players they felt could give immediate impact, but ultimately signed transfers Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald, both of whom have to sit out this year due to NCAA rules. Lynch and Fitzgerald are both supposed to play major roles on next year’s team, but for now their presence has led to thinner depth and less talent. The Gophers were also told freshman Jarvis Johnson wouldn’t be medically cleared to play due to a heart condition, adding further roster troubles.
Pitino also brought up “recruiting mistakes” that led to wasted energy, attention and scholarships on players that could be veterans right now. Transfer Zach Lofton, for example, was kicked off the team before the start of the season a year ago. Sophomore Daquein McNeil was arrested for felony assault and eventually dismissed as well. Freshman Josh Martin decided to transfer after just seven games.
“Now, did we make some mistakes that made it worse than it should be? Absolutely,” he 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.”
Pitino said he and his staff has talked about possibly bringing in a sports psychologist to talk with the team as a new strategy for building and regaining confidence. He is also considering bringing in former players for speeches.
“I’m open to that, absolutely,” he said. “I’m open to other voices.”
Pitino said he heard from Richard Coffey, father of Minnesota commit Amir Coffey after the Nebraska game.
“He said ‘Coach, I went through this …and then next year we went to the Sweet Sixteen,’” Pitino said. Coffey was referencing the 1986-87 and 1987-88 teams he played on at Minnesota. The Gophers finished Big Ten play on a 16-game losing streak and then started the next conference slate with five losses.
Pitino said he’s talked about having Coffey come speak to the team, but he also has other ideas.
“Maybe get him to rebound would be better,” he joked.