Minnesota coach Richard Pitino called the neutral-court experience at Sioux Falls’ Sanford Pentagon in Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State “awesome” and indicated he’d schedule something similar in the future on his Monday radio show on 1500-a.m.
The Gophers received gift boxes for participating, complete with backpacks and t-shirts. The 3,200-seat arena decorated in 1950’s/ 60’s style was nearly packed, and was rocking in moments. And Pitino was impressed with the small touches.
“The Pentagon did a great job for a neutral site game to make you feel like this is bigtime,” he said. “They had your intro video. They turned off the lights. They really manufactured a way for our guys to get excited. “
Of course, some of that may have had to do with the fact that it felt like a home-away-from-home game for Minnesota, which is a four-hour drive away compared with an eight-hour journey from Stillwater, OK. And South Dakota, only recently seeing South Dakota State and South Dakota transition to Division I, holds plenty of Gophers fans as well. The crowd was largely draped in maroon-and-gold and favored Minnesota heavily.
Pitino told 1500’s Mike Grimm that the matchup was instigated by the Pentagon organizers. Oklahoma State and Travis Ford had already committed, and Pitino said Ford said he heard it was a “first-class” event. Pitino said he would be more likely to do more similar neutral-site events in the future and less likely to do some of the bigger three-game destination tournaments Minnesota has traveled to in recent years.
In Pitino’s first season, the Gophers traveled to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, and participated in New York’s NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden last year. This season, Minnesota lost two of three in San Juan at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. That venue felt similar to that of a middle school basketball game, with sporadic music, no public announcer and mostly lethargic atmosphere.
Pitino didn’t schedule any of those three tournaments – they were arranged years in advance by former coach Tubby Smith and the rest of the previous basketball staff.
“I don’t like those tournaments,” Pitino said. “The Puerto Rico one I didn’t like. Who knows, maybe if we’d won three I would have loved it. But I just don’t like being in a big gym and there’s nobody in there. Certainly we had some fans that came and we appreciate it. But to me, Maui and the Bahamas tournament [Battle 4 Atlantis] are great because they play in a smaller venue. They’re not in big arenas.
“…Scheduling the non-conference is always tricky. I don’t like those three-game [tournaments], so maybe if you do [fewer] of those, you can do more home games plus neutral site games. We still haven’t actually gotten full control of our schedule yet. It’s kind of funny, I’m not complaining. Puerto Rico, we didn’t schedule. South Dakota State, we certainly didn’t schedule. “
Regardless, Pitino feels this year’s slate has more than prepared his team for the start of the Big Ten, which is just 15 days away.
“We’ve been tested,” he said. “That’s not a concern anymore. Our guys will certainly be ready for whatever is thrown our way. “
Pitino also said on 1500-a.m. that the first thing the team did after landing in Sioux Falls was visit an orphanage for children. The Gophers put on a clinic for the 50-60 kids that live there, and hung out with them for a while.
“Our guys were awesome,” Pitino said. “It was an emotional time for everybody. For me, I’ve got young kids. To see that is heart breaking. We put them through a little clinic, worked with them, shot with them, passed, dunked afterward, showed them some things.
“But the guys handled themselves with class, they were engaged with the kids, they got something out of it …I was really, really proud of them. It was eye-opening for all of us.”