As Richard Pitino waited to grab the microphone at Monday’s Gophers Road Trip kickoff event at TCF Bank Stadium, he shook his head at one particular line during his introduction.
Mike Grimm, the voice of the Gophers, mentioned the basketball team having the biggest turnaround in the country last season. That drew cheers. Pitino smiled.
But fans were also told to put the 8-23 record a year ago in the rear-view mirror.
Once Pitino addressed the crowd, he made it clear he’s tired hearing about the eight-win season in 2016.
“We’re not going to do 8-23 every stop,” Pitino said. “We’re going to have to work on that. It was a great year; we don’t have to talk about two years ago.”
Maybe not. The Gophers were a 24-win and NCAA tournament team in 2017. And the fifth-year Minnesota coach with a new contract believes his team can make an NCAA tournament run and win a Big Ten title.
In the months since his team’s disappointing loss to Middle Tennessee in the NCAA tournament first round in March, Pitino has been fairly quiet about his expectations for next season.
Meanwhile, the Gophers have been a consensus early top 25 projection for the 2017-18 season.
With summer practice a couple weeks away, Pitino finally shed light on how special he believes the upcoming season could be with nearly everyone returning and recruits adding more talent to the mix.
“Hopefully our guys are extremely hungry to get back into the NCAA tournament, to compete for a Big Ten title, to make a run in the NCAA tournament,” Pitino told fans. “The goal is obviously to win a Big Ten title. And I think our expectations are high. They should be high and we’re excited about that.”
Michigan State and Minnesota have arguably the most returning talent in the Big Ten. But Pitino said he needs to make sure his players know that doesn't guarantee any success.
"The expectations will be extremely high," he said. "We've got everybody back, which is exciting. But I've got to get our guys to understand, you're not going to be good because you've got everybody back. So that's something I'll work on a lot over the eight weeks that they're with us this summer."
Pitino and Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck headline a month-long coaches’ bus tour that starts Monday with stops in Winona and Rochester. Pitino is anxious to sell a bright future for his basketball program. So is Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle, who thinks the Gophers can be a team that makes a deep NCAA tournament run soon.
“I tell people you’ll not meet a more competitive person than Mark Coyle,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come to Minnesota if it can’t be done. There’s no reason why not. You look women’s volleyball making the Final Four. If they can do it, men’s basketball can do it.”
-- Pitino didn’t know until this weekend that his top recruit, Isaiah Washington, would not be able to join the team this week. Washington, a four-star point guard from St. Raymond in New York, just graduated Saturday. So he won’t arrive in Minnesota until when freshmen typically show up just before summer school June 10. The same goes for Louisville 7-foot senior transfer Matz Stockman, who will sit out the 2017-18 season.
But three-star Patrick School (N.J.) guard Jamir Harris graduated a week ago and is already on campus.
“Jamir is the only one that’s here,” Pitino said Monday. “But it’s always good to get him in the class or two, just get him acclimated. I kind of stay away from him; get with him for breakfast one day. But let them more get adjusted to the on-campus life more than anything. So they’re ready to go when we need them to be.”