At this time a year ago, Richard Pitino entered the Big Ten basketball tournament needing a run to make Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle feel comfortable about the direction of the program.
Pitino got what he needed: Two conference tournament victories and an NCAA tournament win over Louisville, which led to a two-year contract extension.
A year later, uncertainty again surrounds Pitino’s future. But this time it would likely take five victories and the Big Ten tournament title to make the NCAA tournament.
Adding to the suspense is Coyle declining interview requests to comment about Pitino until after the season.
Pitino says he doesn’t feel like he’s coaching for his job, but it’s an awkward position for the Gophers (14-16), who open at 5 p.m. Wednesday against Northwestern (8-22) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
“We’re focused on the season right now. One more game at a time in the Big Ten tournament. We’re trying not to pay attention to any of the noise.”
“We work business as usual here,” Pitino said. “We have a young team. We played a tough schedule. Guys are giving me their all. So that’s really it. When you get a two-year extension before the season, you don’t think [about questions on your job status], but that’s part of the profession. And I understand it.”
In the Big Ten, only Nebraska has more than Minnesota’s seven newcomers. Only Northwestern has a younger team than Pitino’s, but Wildcats coach Chris Collins still has a more productive bench.
Pitino cited inexperience and lack of depth as reasons for the disappointing 12th-place finish in the regular season. The Gophers under Pitino have finished 10th or lower four times in his seven years.
But if players are concerned about the coach’s job status, they’re choosing to concentrate on more pressing on-court matters as they enter the postseason.
“We’re focused on the season right now,” sophomore guard Marcus Carr said. “One more game at a time in the Big Ten tournament. We’re trying not to pay attention to any of the noise.”
The Gophers’ 8-12 conference record likely cost sophomore center Daniel Oturu a chance to earn All-Big Ten first-team honors. His stats (second in the league in scoring and first in rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks) were certainly first-team worthy, but Oturu will use that snub as motivation this week.
“He feels a certain type of way about that,” junior guard Payton Willis said. “The team aspect of winning kind of played a part in him not going first-team. So he’s probably going to try to go into that tournament trying to win MVP.”
A monster tournament for Oturu could lead to a couple of victories in Indy, much like Amir Coffey carried the Gophers to wins in March last year. That came after the Gophers had weathered a 1-6 stretch that began in February. Sound familiar? It happened again this season, but it won’t be as easy for Pitino’s squad to mirror last season’s finish.
The team needs at least three victories to ensure a .500 finish. That means beating Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois to reach Saturday’s semifinals. Such a run could make Minnesota attractive enough for the NIT, which has never invited a losing team. The Gophers could get to play again at Williams Arena after setting a school record with 18 three-pointers in pounding the last-place Cornhuskers 107-75 on Sunday.
“They’ve lost a lot of close games,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said of Minnesota’s six losses by six points or fewer. “You swing a couple of those and find out a way to close out some of those games and you’re sitting there at the top half of the league and a cinch to get into the [NCAA] tournament.”
During a three-game home losing streak last month, Gophers fans were heard shouting, “Buy him out! Buy him out!” referring to Pitino’s $2 million buyout if the university fired him. Pitino’s extension lasts through 2023-24, an agreement hatched last year at this time with Coyle.
When asked recently if he had discussions with Coyle to reassure him of his job security, Pitino’s response was that he speaks to his AD more than most coaches do — but not about that.
The Gophers are going into the Big Ten tournament with a sense of urgency like they did last season. If they fall short of making the NCAA or NIT field, what it means for their coach is unclear.
But Pitino stands firm, saying he believes in what he’s done with the Gophers and wondering why fans would want to “blow up the program.”
“We’re so not far off from where you need to be,” he said. “We’re a couple good breaks away.”