After a historically bad 2015-16 season, the Gophers men’s basketball team is in prime position to make this year’s NCAA tournament. The Gophers enter Sunday’s home game against Michigan with a 19-7 overall record and a 7-6 mark in the Big Ten. In advance of that game, coach Richard Pitino chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q: Your last two home victories have been pretty dramatic. Do you subscribe to the idea that teams learn to win games like that, or is it more of a law of averages where you’re just bound to have some of those go your way?
A: Well, they haven’t gone our way for a while here when it comes to close games. Whenever that happens, you have to look at it and say, “Is it something we’re doing? Are we not working on it enough?” So I think it’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes the ball is just going to bounce your way. But when we went through that five-game losing streak, four of the five we had great opportunities to win. We did feel like if we continued to play the way we were playing, we would be on the winning side of it. And now we’ve gone the other way and won some close games. I do think you need to learn to win, but also maybe what you’re doing right or wrong at the end of games to correct and grow from it.
Q: This time last year, your team was 0-13 in the Big Ten and a lot of us were talking about the inevitability of you getting fired. Your message then was “wait until next year.” A lot of us rolled our eyes. Would you like to tell us all, “I told you so?”
A: You know, I don’t know. It is human nature to want to say that, but with that being said you’re only as good as your last game. My uncle, who used to work on Wall Street, used to say you’re only as good as your last trade. With sports, that’s the way it is. I try not to get into the “I told you so” mentality because as good as it feels to be on a four-game winning streak, we could lose one and everyone wants you fired again. It’s just the volatility of the profession. Last year was very difficult. We didn’t have a lot of allies, and I didn’t have a lot of allies. That comes with the territory. You just try to make your team better to the best of your ability.
Q: Speaking of allies: When we talked about nine months ago, it was on the heels of President Eric Kaler saying he was “profoundly disappointed” in your program as he introduced new athletic director Mark Coyle. How has your relationship with both Kaler and Coyle evolved in that time?
A: Well, the President has a whole university to run and I think in his ideal world the athletic director would deal with athletics because he has so much going on. I deal a lot with Mark Coyle, and he’s been phenomenal. We speak multiple times a day. When he got hired, I was really transparent about where I thought our program was at and where we were going. I understood he was walking into what might have appeared to be going on in our program, but I had great confidence we could turn it around. I communicated as much as I possibly could with him. Fortunately, it’s been able to materialize the way I hoped it could, though we still have a lot of basketball yet to play. But Mark has been awesome. Anything we need – we don’t ask for a lot – he tries to help and support as best he can.
Q: A lot of talk right now is fixated around making the NCAA tournament. I know coaches implore their teams to focus game-by-game, but maybe you could take the long view here. If this team gets into the tournament, how dangerous could you be?
A: I would just say the tournament is funny. It all really comes down to matchups. Any team that makes the tournament is dangerous because it’s difficult to get there. It does depend on matchups. But we’ll cross that bridge hopefully when we come to it. I think we’ve shown the ability to play with anybody, but we still have a ways to go from getting to play our best basketball. More than anything, we’ll just work on that this week and prepare for Michigan.
Q: I the way your team is constructed now, with defense and athleticism at the forefront, what you envisioned?
A: The length has really helped, and even with Davonte Fitzgerald getting hurt that’s taken away from it a little bit. He’s 6-7 and a wing player. He would have really provided great athleticism and length, so we’re excited about getting him back next year. But I’ve always wanted to build a team that relied on defense, and you create good offense from good defense. We’ve been able to do that, but still we can get better. Personnel had a lot to do with that. It takes time to build a roster to play the way you want to play. I’m not sure we would be where we’re at today if we didn’t say last year that we had to start over. As painful as it was, we were just treading water my first two years. We had to get younger and we were able to do that this year.
Q: There are a lot of stressful parts of your job, I imagine, but I’m curious: what is the most enjoyable part of your job?
A: Obviously winning. And seeing things panning out on a day-to-day basis with guys as you’re trying to help them out. Just that feeling is pretty gratifying – seeing guys improve and develop as human beings.
Q: The rule in Minnesota is that when a coach struggles we want them fired but when they succeed we worry they will leave. So I need to ask on behalf of any fans who have switched to the other side: how will you approach any inevitable chatter about job openings after this season?
A: Well, it’s like anything else. When everybody wants you fired, you do your best to ignore it. And then it works the other way, too. Two weeks ago, everyone wanted me fired again. I don’t think you can subscribe to all that. I will say this: I’m really excited about where we’re going, and I want to be a big part of it. We lose Akeem (Springs), but we get everybody else back plus Davonte and we’re excited about our recruiting class. I’m looking right now at a new practice facility that I just toured a couple days ago, so I think this thing can get to the next level. You have to remember, we built this team – and we haven’t arrived yet – without have a lot of great resources. Now that we’re getting those, I just think recruiting can really take off. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. You’re looking at a great student-athlete experience that we’ve always had here. And that’s a major selling point for us. Now you add more than $100 million in facilities just for student-athletes. That’s going to add a great deal to the program. That’s something I’m extremely excited about selling going forward. We love it here. My family loves it here. We just want to keep building and hopefully moving forward with positive momentum.