This week Richard and Rick Pitino will become the first father-son combination to coach in the same NCAA tournament. Richard and the Gophers, a No. 5 seed, will play Middle Tennessee, at 3 p.m. Thursday, and Rick and the Louisville Cardinals, a No. 2 seed, will play against Jacksonville State at 1:45 p.m. Friday.
It has to be an especially gratifying situation for Richard, who suffered through one of the worst seasons in Gophers history last year and had a lot of people calling for him to be fired.
But his dad said that early on in 2015, he could tell that last year was going to be a tough one for his son, and his biggest advice was to not get down and go recruit, which Richard did.
“I watched them practice in the beginning of the year, and I said, ‘You’re going to have a rough year. You have no players that can play in the Big Ten,’ ” Rick recalled about a conversation with his son last season. “He said, ‘Well, we’re working on that, Dad, we’re recruiting some.’ I said, ‘Well you’re going to have a tough year, keep your head up, don’t get down.’ He said, ‘I won’t.’
“That was the only advice I gave him, just get out there and recruit Big Ten players.”
The Gophers’ drastic turnaround came at the expense of playing a lot of inexperienced players last year, but that paid off this season as those freshman and sophomores got a year of experience and the Gophers added some key transfers and recruits.
Rick said he knew this year was going to be different.
“I was positive [they were going to be good],” he said. “He had good size, good quickness, experience. I liked his team this year a lot going into the season. The year before I didn’t think he was going to win 10 games, he didn’t have a first-, second-, third-[team] or honorable-mention All-Big Ten player.”
Does he think Richard did a good coaching job this season?
“He did. I was real proud of him,” Rick said.
Improved all around
Yes, going from 8-23 last season and dead last in the Big Ten at 2-16 in conference play to 24-9 this season and a fourth place in the league at 11-7 is one of the great turnarounds you’ll ever see in collegiate athletics.
Rick broke down what he saw as the difference between the two squads and how quickly his son turned the roster around.
“He didn’t have big, physical guys. He didn’t have an experienced backcourt. This year he was able to play much better defense because he had size,” the two-time national champion said. “He recruited the two best players out of Minnesota. He has a great recruiting class coming in this year, as well. The future looks very, very bright for Gophers basketball.”
Rick has been up for a number of Gophers games and said he sees a lot of great things in this young team, including their personality.
“I like the way they rebound the ball. I like the way they create offense by dribble-driving. I like their defense,” he said. “I think they play good defense. They limit the other team to one shot. They have a great attitude. They are terrific. I have been around them, and they are terrific young men.”
How does he view their chances against MTSU in the first round?
“I think the first game is a pick-em, playing against a team that eliminated Michigan State last year, and they’re going to have to play really good basketball to beat them, but I think they’re capable of it,” he said.
Staying in Minnesota
With the recent success of the Gophers there have been rumblings about the idea that Pitino eventually could move on to a more high-profile program. But his father said that when he talks to him, his son says that there’s nowhere else he’d rather be coaching.
“You know the truth, some people called me up and said, ‘Would Richard be interested in this ACC job that’s open? Would he be interested in the SEC job that’s open?’ ” his father recalled. “I asked Richard and he said, ‘Dad, I think I have a better team than all of them. There’s no job I would leave Minnesota for.’ That’s what he told me.”
Does he ever give his son advice on his coaching career?
“I give him more advice as a father than as a basketball coach, but I speak to him almost twice every day,” Pitino said.
Lastly he was asked if he wants to coach against his son again, like they did back in 2014.
“We played them two years ago in Puerto Rico. I don’t think we want to play each other anymore,” he said. “Before the game he was giving me all hugs and, ‘Dad, I love you, I love you.’ After the game when we beat him he barely spoke to me. I don’t think I want to play again.”
• Timberwolves forward Gorgui Dieng made his name in college between his sophomore year of 2011-12, when Louisville made the Final Four and Richard Pitino was working there as a special assistant, and in 2012-13 when the junior forward averaged 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists and helped lead the team to a national title. “He helped me a lot. He was a good coach,” Dieng said about Pitino. “We did individual workouts in the mornings, and he was helping me.” He said he expected Pitino to be successful. “He’s a good coach. I’m not surprised at all.”
• You have to wonder if Wolves star Andrew Wiggins has hit a wall. Wiggins has played the second-most minutes of any player in the NBA this season with 2,454, trailing Houston MVP candidate James Harden, who has 2,476. Wiggins averaged 28.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting in February and played 37.3 minutes per game. But in March he has averaged 18.3 points per game while shooting 34.1 percent in 37.6 minutes per game.
• Despite the Wolves loss Wednesday, Ricky Rubio continued his outstanding play. Rubio scored a team-high 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go along with seven assists. This is the first time in Rubio’s career he has tallied 20-plus points in three straight games.
• What a job Eric Musselman, the former Timberwolves assistant coach and son of former Gophers coach Bill, has done at Nevada. Last year, his first with the squad, he took them to a 24-14 record, 10-8 in the Mountain West and then won the CBI tournament. This year they finished first in the conference at 28-6 overall, won their conference tournament, and will face Iowa State on Thursday night in the NCAA tournament as a 12 seed. It’s Nevada’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in 10 years.
Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com