The two biggest questions hovering over the Gophers men’s basketball program at season’s end centered on the future of Richard Pitino and Daniel Oturu, his best player.
The answers are in: Pitino is coming back but not Oturu.
The Gophers coach expected both of those outcomes, he said in an interview Tuesday with the Star Tribune.
“We certainly talked throughout the year,” Pitino said about Oturu, who declared for the NBA draft on Monday. “What I loved about Daniel is he’s always been very good about communication. We’re all trying to do what’s best for him and what’s best for the program. He had such a great year, especially statistically. And he’s got an NBA game, so it just made sense.”
After talking with Oturu recently, Pitino knew it was time to let his star big man go pursue his NBA dream.
When Pitino and athletic director Mark Coyle met after the season, they spoke about how the program needed to show progress next year with or without Oturu.
Coyle didn’t give his seventh-year basketball coach a public vote of confidence. But Pitino said he didn’t need to hear that. He reiterated this week that he “never felt concerned” about his job status coming off a two-year extension last year.
“The biggest thing with Mark is he’s always been supportive and on my [side],” Pitino said. “We’ve got to all work together as an athletic department to continue to move this thing forward. If you look at our last couple years, I think we’re in really good shape. I know people don’t want to hear it. They want to deem us a failure [finishing 15-16 and 8-12 in the Big Ten].”
In his only comment about Gophers basketball after the season, Coyle in a statement mentioned that Pitino “understands my high expectations for our program” to “compete at a championship level.”
Did that mean Coyle was saying the Gophers had to make the NCAA tournament next season? Not the case, Pitino said. That certainly is the goal but not an ultimatum.
“I know we’re going to have a good team next year,” said Pitino, who won an NCAA tournament game in 2019. “I know we’re going to continue to move this thing forward and recruit at a high level, continue to develop our players and continue to be competitive like we’re doing.
“We’re growing this program. This program has never had a coach that has consistently been to the NCAA tournament every single year. That’s where we want to be. That takes time. That takes a little bit of luck, which we haven’t had. This season was cut short. We don’t know where this was going to go.”
Pitino felt strongly that if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t ended the season prematurely, that his team would’ve made a run in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis earlier this month. The Gophers clobbered Northwestern but weren’t allowed to play Iowa in the second round. Now Oturu is gone.
What will life be like without him? It hasn’t completely settled in yet for Pitino, who fully supported Oturu’s decision, as he did when leading scorer Amir Coffey left early for the NBA last year.
The Gophers’ draft drought likely will end with Oturu becoming the first U player selected in the NBA draft since Kris Humphries in 2004. That’s a positive step for the program, Pitino said.
Pitino likes the pieces coming back, especially All-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr. But not having his All-America center return makes the Gophers’ potential next season hard for Pitino to predict right now.
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” Pitino said. “If Daniel came back, we probably get picked top four in the league. So, if you’re taking a step back and evaluating the program, it’s in really, really good shape. What we need to do is get [big man] Eric Curry healthy whenever we’re allowed to get back to work. Develop [big men] Jarvis Omersa and Sam Freeman. Go recruit a big guy who can step in right away and see big minutes and opportunity right there. And continue to evaluate the way that we play.”