Richard Pitino’s tenure as Gophers men’s basketball coach has been like tracking a volatile stock market. Up, down, up, down. The one constant has been unpredictability.
Every time the program looks like it has some momentum, something pulls it back under. Injuries. Suspensions. More injuries. Some of their issues have been self-inflicted, some completely out of their control.
The Gophers could use calm waters for once.
But this is 2020, and 2020 is the worst, so expecting normalcy is like asking a pilot to fly a Volkswagen.
“The thing that we’ve really struggled with clearly over the last couple of years has been depth,” Pitino said. “We have a lot of good players. I think this is the deepest that we have been.”
On paper, there is a lot to like about the team that Pitino opens the season with Wednesday. The Gophers are experienced, versatile and deep, especially in the backcourt, which gives them a strong foundation. Marcus Carr won’t be forced to play until he collapses from exhaustion every game.
This looks like one of Pitino’s most talented teams. It looks like an NCAA tournament team … IF there is a tournament, that is. And optimism also assumes the Gophers won’t encounter major disruptions from COVID-19. Again, a major if.
“We can’t use this pandemic as a reason why we can’t have a really good year,” Pitino said.
Pitino is entering his eighth season in Dinkytown, and a lot has transpired in that time — good, bad and in between — with myriad stops and starts and roster fluctuation. The lack of consistency has prevented his program from establishing solid footing.
A 15-16 record last season (8-12 in the Big Ten) caused more grumbling and led to Athletic Director Mark Coyle releasing this statement: “Richard understands my high expectations for our program, which is to compete at a championship level.”
Pitino, with a record of 127-108 at Minnesota (48-82 in the Big Ten), is a veteran coach now. He knows about pressure and expectations and what he calls “noise.” He’s taken multiple teams to the NCAA tournament and had seasons fall flat. He just needs roster stability for more than 15 minutes.
“I get to a point now where I’m not offended anymore if somebody says, ‘Hey, are you on the hot seat?’ ” he said. “If you go 15-16, those questions are going to be asked. When you win, you’re going to be celebrated. It’s a simple equation for me: Win.”
His current team can win. The addition of transfers Both Gach, Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson changed expectations. The Gophers instantly become a veteran squad with a credible roster. Gach, in particular, brings a new dimension.
“I don’t know if there is a faster guard in our league,” Pitino said of the Austin, Minn., native who transferred from Utah. “He is absolutely explosive with his speed. He is an elite level defender. He’s very good off ball screens. He’s very good in the open court. He’s got length. He’s very, very dynamic.”
A case can be made that Pitino’s primary rotation could include nine or 10 players. It’s hard for any coach to give that many guys impactful minutes, but in a strange twist, Pitino’s staff has spent considerable time figuring out how to divvy up playing time to those who deserve it.
“It’s a good problem to have because there’s a lot of tough decisions to make,” Pitino said. “It hasn’t always been that way in the past.”
Pitino clearly likes his team. It’s evident in his voice. He frequently reminds his players of the success that the Indiana football team is having this season despite weird circumstances and daily uncertainty of playing during a pandemic.
Things likely will be messy, just as they have for college football, with postponements and players being unavailable after testing positive. Unfortunate timing because this is an important season for Pitino and his program to change the trajectory again.
He offers no excuses.
“I’m pretty confident about where it is that we’re going,” he said. “There is growth here. We just need to go find it.”